NEW YORK — "Who can contend with an endless erection that falls on its face when it see its reflection," sings Julie Andrews, America's sunniest star, in "Putting It Together," a new musical revue about sex, love and death.
The show, which opens April 1 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is among the most anticipated of the New York season. Scalpers are getting as much as $750 for a pair of tickets, and not just because "Putting It Together" marks Andrews' return to the New York stage for the first time in more than three decades. After all, the theater has long been the refuge of fading movie stars, and the 57-year-old actress hasn't had a hit since she cross-dressed in top hat and tails for the 1982 film "Victor/Victoria" and in the process earned an Oscar nomination.
No, the big surprise here is Andrews' return comes at the beckoning of Stephen Sondheim. And they're working together for the first time in a 299-seat theater far away from Broadway's glare. It's an odd coupling.
Andrews, the prim purveyor of the dreamy romanticism of Lerner & Loewe and Rodgers & Hammerstein taking on the edgy neuroticism of Broadway's modernist master?
The cockeyed optimist sings the \o7 Angst\f7 -ridden realist? The fair lady and the dark prince?
The pairing was by any measure big news when it was announced in October, especially for the legions of Sondheim freaks and Andrews fans in this town. When tickets went on sale in February for the 12-week limited run, thousands of stoic theatergoers (and scalpers) queued in freezing weather to pick up tickets.
The marriage between these two musical-theater titans promised, among other things, the thrill of watching Andrews--who only last year was whistling a happy tune in a recording of "The King and I"--take on some of Sondheim's pricklier and more acerbic material, such as the above lyrics from "My Husband the Pig."
"Will it have the same effect as when she bared her breasts in 'S.O.B.'?" mused Sondheim, referring to Andrews' husband Blake Edwards' film, in which she parodied her pristine image. "The real point is that for the first time she has the opportunity to play a contemporary character in a contemporary musical. She hasn't had a chance to do that kind of work."
In fact, when Andrews left New York in the early '60s to conquer Hollywood in a 1-2 volley of "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music," she had already established herself as the queen of the musical theater, creating the starring roles on stage in both "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." Her return to the stage has long been rumored, especially since her once-buzzing career had settled in to the medium hum of the occasional film or TV special interspersed with concerts and recordings.
Most recently, the Broadway chatter had centered on a musical version of "Victor/Victoria" to be directed by her husband. People certainly expected her to come back in a big, splashy vehicle, the kind with lots of high-kicking chorus boys flanking a star decked out in glamorous threads.
Instead, Andrews has chosen an intimate revue, where she is one of an ensemble cast of five that also includes Michael Rupert, Christopher Durang, Rachel York and Stephen Collins. The show's book has been stitched together from Sondheim's songs, and although it is directed by Julia McKenzie, one of the stars of the 1977 Broadway hit "Side by Side by Sondheim," it is not a sequel. Each of the cast plays a different fractured piece in the unresolvable puzzle of relationships. Andrews herself becomes a middle-aged, upper-middle-class woman--"smart, tart, dry as a martini"--whose wolfish husband (Collins) leads her into a thicket of marital conundrums.
For Andrews, the challenge of "Putting It Together" has been to return to the theater performing songs that, in her eyes, expose her far more painfully than anything she did in "S.O.B."
"Stephen's music bares your soul," she said in an interview during a lunch break while the show was in rehearsals at MTC's Chelsea loft spaces. "He pierces to the heart of all our lives. That is, if you allow him to get to you, because it can be too painful. . . .
"The lady I play covers her pain with a lot of wit," she added. "But the nice thing is that each of our characters start off by being full of veneer, but very quickly reveal who they are. They're slowly stripped of their illusions."