The Streaming Experience: Julie Andrews and Broadway’s Victor/Victoria
Never has there been a moment where I could think of one negative thing to say about Julie Andrews. Let’s be clear on that. She is a true gift from the heavens, never disappointing this theatre and movie junkie in the least. From the very first times I laid eyes on that angelic face and heard that impeccable voice, she had been my beacon of pure unadulterated joy. Having already written about that first Julie experience in my blog regarding the cinematic sequel “Mary Poppins Returns“, I won’t go there, but I will say that Julie Andrews in that iconic titular role was really the first to captivate this musical theatre heart. I couldn’t sit down, literally, that first time watching her tell us about that spoonful of sugar, and it only added to my experience of her when she later claimed and calmed our hearts with a few of her favourite things list in that other classic film, “The Sound of Music“. She was a legend before I even knew what legends and stars were and would ultimately mean to me. That crystal clear voice and wise winking clarity resonated something completely honest and true, while embodying two very different nanny types. I wanted them both, as they made me feel loved and seen in a way that I can’t, even to this day, fully explain. Little did I know that another of her films would also make me feel loved and seen, but in a very different kind of way.
I don’t think I’m very alone in this club, as her first two films still find connection and engagement to all those generations of kids that experience wonder and love within those cinematic walls. She encompasses so much pleasure within that voice and that quality, and yet she is far more than just those two roles. In the opening of the YouTube video that I just happened upon the other day, Andrews tells us of her love of Broadway, and it was on stage where her light began to shine out strongly. With a career that spans seven decades, she first arrived from England to make her Broadway debut in 1954 in The Boy Friend, followed by My Fair Lady playing Eliza Doolittle in 1956 and Camelot playing Queen Guinevere in 1960. In 1957 Andrews also starred in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s written-for-television musical “Cinderella“, a live network broadcast seen by over 100 million viewers, an event surprisingly that I only just saw on YouTube in 2020. It was also only after losing the prized role of Eliza Doolittle in the film version to “My Fair Lady” to Audrey Hepburn, that she made her feature film debut in “Mary Poppins.” She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role, and of course, my undying love and devotion. Cause, how else can you say it, but it’s a jolly holiday with Julie. No wonder that it’s Julie that we love.
But it was in 1982, when this young man, working his part-time evenings away as an usher at a movie theatre in London, Ontario, was introduced to a very different kind of Julie. It was a part that had nothing to do with being a governess, but one as a full fledged adult singer/actress, and woman of the most wide eyed open order when she magnificently donned a black tux and tie to take on the starring role in Blake Edwards’ musical film hit, “Victor/Victoria“. It was a magical revolution of the highest order, in a way, making us all ask with wonderment, “What the Hell was that?” “B-flat.” Co-starring the incomparable Robert Preston as the lovable Toddy, the two broke so many social barriers that I could barely stand up, as I was required to do at the back of that movie theatre. We had to stand and watch for trouble in the back of the theatre, while really I was only watching these iconic actors hit vocal and theatrical high notes one right after the other, zinging lines at one another while pratfalls happen, as it does with any Blake Edwards’ films (most notably any that involve a “Pink Panther“), all around them with an artful ease. The two played off one another exceptionally well, giving us heart and connection at every turn of phrase, but it was also in the advancement of topics, such as homosexuality and the presentation of gender and sexuality without shame, that sent this young teenage boy reeling in the back row, not to mention a glimpse of just how magnificent Lesley Ann Warren could be when given such a fun juicy role to swivel her hips to (Who can ever forget her performance of “Chicago, Illinois” It’s a killer!). Oh, and James Garner as King Marchand with Alex Karras as his (closeted) gay bodyguard, Squash, are pretty damn spectacular as well.
I was smitten. And I couldn’t get enough, happily standing in the back of that movie theatre (like I also did with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli in “Arthur“) watching and rewatching until I could basically, like Preston’s character eventually does, perform each step and stance of Victor/Victoria‘s every musical number. I love that shady dame from Seville. That laugh of his when taking his final bow at the end of the film, applauded most adoringly by his newly found love, played magnificently by Karras, is worth everything. It’s overflowing with love and acceptance, and just a heap of good fun that it almost brings tears to my eyes each and every time I watch (which, by now, is in the hundreds, I’d wager). That being said, years and years later, in 1995, living the dream, one might say, in New York City (having just arrived one year prior), it was announced, with great fanfare, that Andrews and Edwards were bringing themselves and this story to Broadway in a film to stage remake, and I couldn’t have been more excited. But alas, I was just a poor waiter slinging hummus at the Yaffa Cafe in the East Village, and Broadway theatre tickets were a luxury I couldn’t quite afford just yet.
So this week, finding this unseen show tucked away on YouTube was a joyous gift, and although I heard at the time my fair share of negativity about the production, especially when anyone compared the staged version to the film, I just had to watch and see how it translates to the stage. But above all, I had to have just one more experience of the unbelievable Julie Andrews singing some of those iconic songs live on stage, even though it is a moment that I never got to have in real life. It’s a crazy world, this isolated COVID-19 landscape we find ourselves in, but still, almost one year exactly since Broadway went dark, and when live theatre retreated behind the lowering of the curtain, there are some wonderful silver lining gifts to be had out there, if we are lucky enough to spot them.
Now back to the matter at hand. Victor/Victoria opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre October 25, 1995. Directed, as was the film by Andrews’ husband. Blake Edwards with choreography by Rob Marshall, the musical played 25 previews and 734 performances before closing on July 27, 1997. The glorious music that we remember so well from the film, ushers us in, seducing us with a bunch of boys in heels and wrapped in feather boas. What a way to arrive into Edwards’ Paris, introducing us most lovingly to a kindly French homosexual known affectionately as Toddy, who takes in the desperate and hungry Victoria, an act of love that will only beget more love at almost every turn. It’s a slightly different set up, the ‘meet cute’ of these two adorable characters, but the quick affection is just as pure and sweet. After a late night chance encounter with Toddy’s nasty ex boyfriend, Toddy comes up with the most outlandish, brilliant plan, one that, especially on stage, you just have to fully embrace even as it stretches its credibility. Her audition at the nightclub where Toddy performs isn’t as magical or melodic as the opening film version, but it’s clear the lady can sing, shattering glass when she wants to with that infamous, and unforgettable B-flat. Toddy, himself has fallen into his own bit of financial trouble, having fought with the owner of the nightclub where he sings, albeit in a less fun dramatic fashion. No fist-fights nor silly French policemen, at least not yet (they come later, and not so well orchestrated as the film’s version). It seems these two both need saving, and Toddy’s ludicrous plan of remaking the pretty and poor Victoria into the the extraordinarily talented and celebrated female impersonator from Poland, Victor, might just be that ticket to fame and riches. Throw her in a suit, add a scarf to rid themselves of that Adam’s apple problem, and voila, a star is born. And who knows, it might just be crazy enough to work. A woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman…what could possibly go wrong?
This was basically the plot of the Edwards’ film, and he leads the musical basically through the same paces, directly holding on to many of the famous lines while simplifying the film’s plot so it moves faster and easier to the moment that we are all waiting for, that Jazz Hot moment that brings it all together and ushers them up to that hotel suite in the Parisian sky. It makes sense, this plan but it does leave the audience constantly comparing this version to the film and noticing and noting each and every change made. I must admit I missed that spectacularly delicious scene of Andrews as the starving singer watching a man glutton-ly eating an eclair with relish, or the ridiculously fun dinner for two that follows, with that incredibly funny waiter and that cockroach. Andrews, as she did in the film, sells it all so well, gladly making us believe that she is believable as this fake female impersonator, but the stage show adaptation lacks a bit of that famous spark. It might be the flat and uninspiring scenic design by Robin Wagner, with a lackluster costume design by Willa Kim, pedestrian lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and straight forward sound design by Peter J. Fitzgerald. It’s especially surprising that, with the luxurious and colorful cinematic blue-print at their disposal, the final product is plain, flat, and dull, although the adjoining hotel suites deliver the only true door-slamming goods well. But in all honesty, the overall effect might be that Tony Roberts (Broadway’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) as the lovable Toddy only made me miss the incredibly engaging energy of Preston more, especially in the opening few scenes, but I will also say that he grew on me as the show gayly prances forward (but he is no Robert Preston, but really, who could be?).
Sadly, the musical as a whole is pretty darn clumsy and underwhelming, especially when it doesn’t just mimic the movie, which, in itself, is a complicated thing. The difficulty of film-to-stage adaptations lies in that balance between giving us what we love to remember and surprising us with a twist or two that works, like Tina Fey and company did so well with Mean Girls. Sadly Victor/Victoria just doesn’t delivery with any of the new songs, giving us an unremarkable score by Henry Mancini and Frank Wildhorn, with some pretty lame lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. The team tries to melt in more narrative styled songs throughout, but time and time again they fail to find any character or quality in those musical moments. Victoria’s first number, “If I Were a Man,” is the one of the saddest, as it really is the first full song Andrews is given to sing in the musical, and it is remarkable only in how unremarkable it truly is. “Why? For heaven’s sake,” Tobby asks, and we understand the question more after the song is played out. We sadly sigh in disappointment, for it’s bland musicality and framework, and for the lack of taking advantage of the goddess sitting before them. The audience arrived with such love and devotion to the actress and the movie. And she deserves a whole lot more, yet her first song delivered is something quite the opposite.
But we wait, patiently, because we know what must be coming, and that something will be “Le Jazz Hot.” It was Andrews’ big number in the film, filled to the brim with her majestic singing and a flourish of style. We feel the energy approaching, as it is the song that is supposed to usher Victor into Parisian nightclub fame and glory. But as the curtain rises and the illustrious memorable music swirls, all we can do is wonder, at first, where is she? And why has she given up singing the opening to another? The well voiced young man who takes over the first few bits (far too many I would add) does fine with the task at hand, but it’s a disappointment, and not a good start to what should be a singular sensation. The idea requires that Victor be utterly sensational, stunning us all with his nightclub debut, and shocking us with the big reveal, but as formulated by Rob Marshall (Broadway’s Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Edwards, the brilliance is pulled out before it even gets started. The intro gives it all away. In the film, the singer is introduced as Victoria (keeping the illusion alive), but on the stage, he is Victor before the curtain rises. That directorial decision strips the short hair unveiling of any suspense. There is no surprise, the only surprise lies in how Andrews is sidelined throughout the song and dance, spending almost half the number off stage leaving it to the dancers to deliver the high stakes energy, and the majority of her onstage time is her sitting and being wheeled around on a neon piano. Where’s the star making excitement in that? I was aghast.
In this poorly conceived stage version of the dynamic song, the spotlight tends to shine on the young and more energetic dancers, giving us an under-the-cover glimpse of something we shouldn’t be contemplating: the age of the star and maybe her limitations. To be kind, Andrews is a true legend, and she has aged beautifully and elegantly. This part is her swan song to Broadway, but maybe (and forgive me for stating it) it came a little too late for her to shine as strongly as the part needed from her. I feel terrible saying it, but this is not what we should be thinking at this point of the show, and it’s really only because of the awkward way it has been staged for Broadway. Tarted up, flattened out, and all the elegance carted away. Just give her the songs, the spotlight, and let her voice ring true. Don’t try to distract us with dancing young beauties. The number in the film isn’t all that energetic or highly choreographed to begin with, but it does have a sparkle and a shine that is sadly missing from this overly drawn out and over-the-top presentation.
I must admit I was flabbergasted, wondering how this could have gone so wrong, but we are quickly diverted to what turns out to be some of the most silly fun to be had in the show; Rachel York (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) as the blonde dynamo and gangster mole, Norma Cassidy. Norma is here to deliver the comic relief in Victor/Victoria, which she sashays out brilliantly by basically channelling every squeak and shriek that the equally talented Leslie Ann Warren brought to the part in the film. But in the show, her role is to bring out the handsome gangster King Marchan, played well by the uber-handsome Michael Nouri (NYCC Encores’ Can Can), and gift us all with every bit of deliciously fun low brow comedy that Edwards can pull out from his tricky deck of cards. How could it go wrong? Well,…. it doesn’t really, although the fantastic number “Chicago, Illinois” is overly produced and overly busy, once again, draining it of most of the sizzle and schtick on that big wide uninspired set piece.
I wish I could say that things get better as the story progresses, but I don’t know if I can. I mean, if the pretty terrible “Louis Says” doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. There is a magnificently well-staged door-slamming scene, that in the movie is all about James Garner, who plays gangster King, discovering Victor’s true identity by hiding out in her bathroom and watching Victoria disrobe and take a post-show bath. He finds the proof he needs to move forward, that the man is really a lady (of the highest order) pretending to be a man, and his love for her makes sense to him. But on that Broadway stage,the scene ends with Nouri’s King and his bodyguard Squash, played well by Gregory Jbara (Broadway’s Billy Elliot) discovering, well, pretty much nothing. Instead it’s the nasty nightclub owner, Labisse, played on a one-note horn by Adam Heller (Broadway’s Caroline, or Change) who pulls out Victoria’s old dress from the closet and makes the connection. Which, I guess, is fine, but not as strong of the film ending to that scene, and only begs us to ask the question; why does he continue to stalk the performer if he already knows he’s a woman for sure? I can’t answer that, except maybe he continues to spy on them in order to play out a few more theatrical pratfalls for Edwards, unless I’m truly missing something.
Andrews, finally, is given a new number that rises to her magnetic vocal abilities, “Living in the Shadows“, a song that almost equals the beautiful “Crazy World” that she also performs exceedingly well within the story. Those two songs remind us why we are all here in the first place, and also make us wince a wee bit more with the ridiculous finale number. To say it pales in comparison to the film’s hilariously emotional ending (thank you, Robert Preston! You are a gem!) is an understatement. Andrews, and Victor/Victoria, deserve so much better than what we are given here (click below to watch it all on YouTube). I can’t believe it went so wrong, but I’m hoping, somewhere, at some point of time, some creative brave hands will be given another go at the idea, with a new star, and a better, more colorful and sylistic vision all around, because this Polish Count deserves a much better gown and a far classier send-off.