JULIE ANDREWS & EMMA WALTON HAMILTON: INSPIRING ARTISTS

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have the privilege to write this intro. Okay, I definitely dreamt about it, but I never thought it’d actually happen. Well, here we are and, as you could imagine, there’s a lot I can say. But there’s an interview with Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, on the other side of this introduction and I don’t want to be the one to keep you from it. All you need to know is that in this interview the mother-daughter duo speaks about collaborating, their love of theater, and keeping the wonder of the arts alive with their new show, Julie’s Greenroom. There are many stories, lots of advice, and some good laughs too. It’s an honor to share this with you.

HANNAH: When did you both catch the theater bug? Emma, were you drawn to writing or theater first?

JULIE: You mean the theater bug in general? I kind of was exposed to it most of my life. My mother and my stepfather were performers in vaudeville. My stepfather was a fine tenor and my mother was a lovely pianist. They traveled and were “on the boards,” so to speak, for many, many years. So I would watch and sit in the audience or sit in the wings. Then at about seven years old my stepfather discovered that I had this really strong soprano voice with four or five octaves. He very quickly realized that I should probably be sent to a good teacher—a singing teacher— which he did. From then on I joined their little act. I toured with them all over the country many, many times when I was a teen. Life and an enormous amount of good fortune got me here today talking to you.

EMMA: Well, actually theater came first, Hannah.   It’s my first love and passion and still one of my abiding passions. As you might imagine, growing up the daughter of Julie Andrews, I was exposed to a tremendous amount of theater, music, and film.   My father, Tony Walton, is a production designer, so I had the opportunity to see a tremendous amount of theater from an early age.

JULIE: It was all around you.

EMMA: Yeah, it was all around me. I guess when it first really hit me that this is how I wanted to spend my life was when I was about 10. My dad designed the original production of Pippin. I think I saw it about 60 times in the course of one summer. The bug bit me. So for years I was producing theater, acting in theater, doing theater directing. I ran my own theater in partnership with my husband out here where we are in Eastern Long Island [Baystreet Theater] for 17 years. I then segued from teaching dramaturgy—I did a lot of dramaturgy, directing, and teaching kids playwriting—to writing for children and children’s books, and now children’s television.

tumblr_nuug5tp5gr1txihrro1_1280
Julie Andrews and a baby Emma Walton Hamilton on set of The Sound of Music with Director Robert Wise, 1965

For both of you, what were the most formative experiences in helping to develop your craft?

JULIE: I think that first singing teacher was a mentor. She was a gift really. She was a wonderful teacher and imbibed in me a love of singing and singing well. But even more than singing, a love of lyrics. I can’t sing a song unless it has some wonderful words to go with it. The more words the better for me. I just love conveying a message in the song, or acting, as we say.

I think all my life I’ve been watching. I have been taught by great mentors. A director of two shows I did on Broadway, Moss Hart, who was huge as a director and a writer, was an enormous influence on me. He took me under his wing so to speak and trusted I could do what he was asking me to do. Just so many things. One thing leads to another. You know how it is. You hear a piece of music and you’re influenced by it, you want to buy all the albums, and you can’t wait to read about all the stuff that the artist is involved with. It’s just, one thing leads to another, I believe.

EMMA: You know, paradoxically for me I would say, I learned the most about my craft from teaching. It seems like an odd thing to say. I studied for years and years at a theater called HB Studio with people like Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. I studied at Stella Adler for a long time. Then writing, I have been training in writing courses for years and years. Funnily enough, it isn’t until one starts trying to communicate to someone else what the nature of the craft is and the process is that it really begins to sink in. At least that was my experience. By articulating it for someone else and helping them find their process, I think that really strengthened my own.

JULIE: And Hannah, one of the most important things we should talk about is the wonder of the arts and the joy, but also how threatened all the arts programs are now with the new administration threatening to cut back on everything with the arts. It is so important. School budgets are being sliced in half these days. The arts are always the first thing to go.

Going off of that, how have you both seen the arts and entertainment world change since you first started? What brought you to make this show now?

JULIE: From my point of view—I’ll answer the last question first—I’ve always wanted to do something like this show: bring the arts to children, give them joy and wonder, and hopefully inspire curiosity in them with their families, if possible. It’s something I’ve long wanted to do and suddenly there was the Henson family who was feeling the same way. They asked me if I’d think about it and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Then Netflix came aboard and really had our back. This is a labor of love for me and something that I’ve been wanting to do for very long time. I forgot the first part of your question now [Julie laughs].

EMMA: How have we seen the arts change over the years?

JULIE: It seems that the arts somehow survive. It’s like—

EMMA: Valleys and mountains.

JULIE: Yeah, they have to exist and they do somehow with greater and greater obstacles in their way.

EMMA: In some ways, I would say in the last couple of years on Broadway, it’s seldom been stronger or more exciting as what’s out there right now, if you think about how Hamilton has revitalized the Broadway scene.

JULIE: And how important it has been for children to turn to history and embrace the music.

EMMA: But of course, not everybody has access to Broadway. So that was one of the reasons why we wanted to do the show.  Netflix is global. It allows us to bring the wonder of the arts to children who are maybe in Middle America and don’t have access to Broadway or are and other countries in the world. That is truly a gift. 

170_JG_105_Unit_00066RC
Julie Andrews as Ms. Julie on Julie’s Greenroom

In addition to being mother-daughter, you are both long-time collaborators. Emma, what’s something your mother taught you about doing creative work? Julie, what has Emma taught you about doing creative work?

JULIE: Oh my gosh! If you had about three hours—

EMMA: The thing is, Hannah, what we’ve discovered over the years—because we’ve works together in a lot of different capacities creatively. You know, we’ve acted together, I’ve produced plays that mom has directed, we’ve written over 30 children’s books together, and we’re collaborating on her memoirs, and so forth. What we’ve discovered is that we have different but complementary strengths. I tend to be sort of a nuts and bolts structure person who says, “First Act, Second Act, Third Act. What’s the theme here? What’s the arc?”

Mom is the one who has a brilliant idea in the middle of the night. She’s the one who has the great inspiration, who hears or sees the opening scene or the opening fanfare, as it were, that starts the whole ball rolling. I’ve come to appreciate, beyond appreciate, her incredible instinct and innate artistic knowledge.

JULIE: And discipline I think is something too.

EMMA: And the discipline, yeah.

JULIE: I maybe passed that on a little bit. There’s no use doing it half-heartedly. You have to work at it. It’s a blessing if it succeeds.

EMMA: And being on the set with her when we were shooting this series over the course of eight weeks last summer, You know that was—

JULIE: Was it only eight weeks?

EMMA: [Emma laughs] Yeah, was it only eight weeks? That was really a revelation. Obviously I had been on sets with her many times as a child, but it has been a number of years since I have been on set with her. Her commitment and her tirelessness—these were long, sometimes 12-hour days on her feet. We were working at a breakneck pace to get everything done. She never slagged. I was very proud and amused to often see much, much younger people—the puppeteers for instance—saying well, “If she’s not complaining I’m not going to complain.”

JULIE: [Julie laughs] I was tired but I didn’t show it that much I hope.

Ms. Julie seems to be inspired by Emma’s experience running a theater. How did you two develop who the character of Ms. Julie was and how much was drawn from your own experience, Emma?

EMMA: That’s a wonderful question, Hannah. You’re one of the few people who spotted that out actually. A lot of people think that Ms. Julie is Julie Andrews but that’s not the case. It’s a character that mom plays. I wouldn’t say she’s modeled after me or that we portray anything specific that happened to me. But I would say that our experience with Bay Street and also the other local theater out here, the John Drew Theater, is more of the physical model for our set. Those theaters influenced the way we designed the theater on the show and the programs they offer there. So the John Drew theater, which is a theater in a neighboring town around here where both my husband and I have directed over the years and are also involved, is very physically similar to the show’s: the color and composition of the auditorium space—not so much the greenroom.

In the years that I was at Baystreet—and also still today—I led workshops: primarily playwriting for students. We also offered other kinds of workshops in performing arts. I do have a background in working with kids.

JULIE: I think we drew on a lot of greenroom experiences of our own.

EMMA: Did you spot the Wesleyan reference in the show?

I couldn’t believe it. In the first episode, right?

JULIE: Oh yes indeed! [Julie laughs]

EMMA: I think it comes up a couple of times actually. Mom has a sidekick on the show who’s her stage manager—her kind of “Guy Friday,” played by a wonderful young actor named Giullian Yao Gioiello. In the first episode when there’s the flood in the basement, which is the props and the costumes storage, all the props and costumes are lost. The bonus and happy accident is that we’re joined by a duck who swims in through the burst pipe. His name is Hugo. He wants to join the company. Because the theater never discriminates, Ms. Julie says he’s allowed to audition. The surprise is that Gus, the sidekick and stage manager, understands everything that Hugo says because he studied duck [quacking] at Wesleyan. So what we want to know is are you studying duck while you’re there? It’s a very important skill in the theater.

[Julie laughs]

I mean I dabbled in it but I don’t think I’ll major.

[Emma and Julie laugh]

EMMA: Good answer!

JULIE: That’s lovely! Some of our guest artists too—the experts who teach a master class so to speak—some of the actors who come to help me teach a class, I think maybe two others actually went to Wesleyan as well. You’ll have to watch the series to find out who they are. They say, “We understand duck, we went to Wesleyan!” [Julie laughs]

079_JG_107_Unit_00421R2
Giullian Yao Gioiello, Ellie Kemper, and Julie Andrews with Hugo the duck on Julie’s Greenroom

I mean we have some ducks here at Wes, but there are many more squirrels.

[Julie and Emma laugh]

JULIE: Oh, that’s great to know! Excellent.

So next season, if you have a squirrel reference, you’ve really covered all the bases.

JULIE: I’ve got a lot of squirrels in my garden too!

EMMA: All we need is Lin-Manuel Miranda to come be a guest on the show and we’re completely sewn up in terms of Wesleyan, right?

That would be icing on the cake. I feel like he would do it.

JULIE: From your lips to his ears. We’re hoping to persuade him if we’re picked up for a second season…He’s a very, very nice guy. So talented and smart, of course.

Because your show is about a greenroom, I wanted to ask what’s your favorite story about something that happened in a greenroom you were in?

JULIE: I actually do [have a story]…My experience, the one that sticks out in my mind—and of course I’ve been in many, many, many greenrooms—is when I was about 10 years old believe it or not. And I was singing and studying. It was after the war and my parents who were in theater and vaudeville, as I said, took me up to London. They just said, “You’ll be performing with us tonight,” because I did sing with my stepfather and my mother played the piano. They said, “We’ll pull you out of school a little bit early so that we can get out there and get ready.” As we pulled into the parking slot, a doorman came up to us and said to my stepfather, “You cannot park here, this is where the Queen’s car is coming.” I said, “Whose car?!” And my mother quickly said, “The Green’s car.” [Julie laughs] Nothing to do with greenroom, by the way. She said somebody important like, “Mr. and Mrs. Green are coming.”

So I was waiting in the greenroom waiting to go on stage, at which point somebody came into the room to discuss how the protocol went. When the queen came to visit, you had to bow to the royals’ box and then bow to the audience after. It was revealed to me that the wife of King George—that was Queen Elizabeth—was coming to visit all the troops that were in the audience. It was what you called a “stage door canteen” where the troops could go for entertainment and fun. Her Majesty then came back to the greenroom and we were all introduced to her. So that was the first time I met one of the royals. She was just lovely and I was gob smacked. The next day at school I was honored. Everybody wanted to know what it was like. That’s a pretty good greenroom memory.

A young Julie Andrews singing for the royals another time.

EMMA: [Emma laughs] I can’t top that, but I can say I had a hand in creating a memorable greenroom.

JULIE: Yes, you did!

EMMA: My husband and I co-founded and ran for 17 years the Baystreet Theater out here in Sag Harbor. When we were building it we were converting an old warehouse into the theater. Part of the job we had to do was make a greenroom. Being actors and directors ourselves, we knew the importance of making it an inviting space and a place where actors and company members wanted to hang out, lay down, have access to food and drinks, and so forth. We were trying but we are on such a shoestring budget that it was very challenging to get furniture and supplies. Our co-founder was a woman by the name of Sybil Christopher, who was an old family friend. For many years, she had been married to Richard Burton and was a very old friend of the actor Roddy McDowell, as was my mother. Roddy very sadly passed away. When he passed away he left a complete set of furniture to us for our greenroom specifically. We ended up with Roddy McDowell’s Chinese rug, red velvet sofa, red leather chairs, a drinks cart, and everything else. Lo and behold, the Roddy McDowell Greenroom is still to this day a very comfy place for actors to hangout.

I think that’s the fanciest greenroom I’ve ever heard of!

[Julie and Emma laugh]

EMMA: It’s funky you might imagine years later, but it’s great. We hung a bunch of photographs of Roddy and all of his films and shows on the wall. It’s a real tribute to him.

Julie what’s your advice for aspiring actors and performers? Emma what’s your advice for aspiring theatermakers and writers?

JULIE: In my case, I think that, Hannah, I’ll follow on what we were saying before. If you do aspire to be in the theater, write, or anywhere in the arts, the chances are—I say this all the young students who ask for advice—chances are that, like me, something miraculous might float by just when you least expect it. Who knew that my life would be filled with these projects which I was lucky enough to be asked to do? It just might happen to you too. If it does then you better be ready, so do your homework. That’s part of the discipline I’m talking about. If you love it, it won’t feel like homework. There is a discipline attached to it. Singing practice takes as much time as ballet does and any art really. Finding your own way of doing it takes a lifetime but it brings so much joy along the way. But be ready is what I would say. Do you have anything to add to that Emma?

EMMA: Yeah two things. I would just add, continue to immerse yourself in whatever you’re passionate about and aspire to. So if you want to act, spend as much time as possible studying great performances of other actors trying to understand how they were achieved and what particular technical elements of the craft the actor was using. The same goes for music or dance.

JULIE: You have to have mentors and people to help you.

EMMA: But at the end of the day, the biggest piece of advice I ever received—and I would not hesitate to pass it along—[is that] Herbert Berghof would always say to those of us who aspired to a life in the theater, “Never mind the talent. Do you have the tenacity?” That has really stuck with me over the years because talent is one thing. It’s not an easy business by any stretch of the imagination.

JULIE: There are many setbacks along the way. You’re always learning. You never stop learning.

EMMA: There will be disappointments and there will be hard times and there will be challenges but you’ve got to have the tenacity to stick with it.

JULIE: There’s always a learning curve.

EMMA: And if you do, it eventually pays off.

JULIE: My wonderful singing teacher that was the first mentor I ever had said this wonderful thing to me. She said, “Remember, the amateur works till he gets it right. The professional works till he can’t go wrong.” It filled me with a real perspective; you can do it for fun or you can do it for real. And if you do it for real, that’s where the hard work comes in.

And you know, there’s an enormous about of talent out there. As you probably are aware there’s an enormous pool of talent to draw from. And then it’s a question of good fortune, opportunities, people you know and meet. Life gets in the way as you go along and sometimes it can bring the most wonderful surprises.♦

All episodes of Julie’s Greenroom are available to stream on Netflix!

Photo Credit: Ali Goldstein/Netflix
Advertisements