Anyone who knows me or this website knows I love Julie Andrews. My introduction to musicals began honestly before I really even have conscious memory (thanks Mom and Dad), but I do remember watching “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” on repeat every single weekend. And I do mean every weekend. So much so that my “talent” in preschool was saying Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious not only forward, but backwards. Backwards. In preschool. That’s how much of a little musical theater nerd I was, even at three (alas, this is a skill I no longer possess). “Mary Poppins” was even my first Broadway show when I was seven years old.
But even with the music, the costumes, and everything that comes with watching a Rodgers and Hammerstein or Disney production, it was always Julie Andrews that got my attention. I wanted to sing like her (my fully grown alto self realizes this is a goal I will never accomplish), be poised like her, and emulate her kindness and grace on and off the stage and screen.
This admiration has continued well into adulthood, and here I am all grown up (ish), working as a theater writer. So when I heard that a small theater in Sag Harbor, New York, was putting on a reading of “The Great American Mousical” followed by a talkback with its creative team, there was no hesitation about what I needed to do next.
“The Great American Mousical” is a children’s book written by Julie Andrews Edwards and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. The book was released in 2006, and has since been adapted into a stage musical with music by Zina Goldrich, lyrics by Marcy Heisler, a book from Hunter Bell, and direction from Julie Andrews herself.
As part of its Music Monday series, the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor announced a readthrough of this adorable musical, followed by a talkback with its creative team, including Hamilton and Andrews.
The musical itself was incredibly clever, and I was honestly much more entertained than I expected. The production tells the story of a troupe of mice living below the Sovereign Theater in New York City. While humans perform on the stage above, these adorable mice stage their own productions on the theater’s miniature replica, hidden deep in the basement. As the mice frantically rehearse their show “Broadway Airs,” they are interrupted by the demolition of the Sovereign Theater and the disappearance of their star and in-house diva Adelaide. As the clock to opening night ticks down, the mice must figure out what to do, because as we all know, the show must go on.
The entire cast of this lightly staged readthrough is obviously very talented, and it is worth noting that Hamilton’s daughter Hope Hamilton starred as Pippin the Intern. Fun fact: Hamilton is a co-founder of the Bay Street Theater, and was pregnant with Hope while Andrews was in a production at the theater.
“Now here she is, she’s just 19, and she’s performing in the very theater that these folks began,” Andrews said when asked about seeing her granddaughter perform. “The child was born into this place, in a way. It’s phenomenal, that’s all I can tell you. And it’s lucky. Are we lucky or what?”
Side note - during the production, I remember thinking that performer Derrick Davis (in the role of Sky, the Leading Mouse) sounded like he would be really good at singing music from “The Phantom of the Opera.” And then he did (which I shall explain in a moment). It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’ve not only seen Davis perform before, I’ve seen him perform as the Phantom. I love full circle moments.
During the talkback, Andrews described the piece as “an homage to Broadway and how much we love it.” Each character in the show is named for a famous character in musical theater. In addition to Pippin, we have Adelaide (Guys and Dolls), Wendy (Peter Pan), Curly (Oklahoma!), Harold (The Music Man), and Henry (My Fair Lady), just to name a few.
But in addition to these cleverly named characters, there are also dozens of references to classic and modern musicals sprinkled throughout the production. As a theater geek, I had an absolute blast finding these hidden (and not so hidden) Easter eggs during the show. Some of these were more blatantly obvious, like waving a mop behind the group a la “Les Misérables,” a snappy little “I’m not throwing away this cheese” in a new-for-this-production (according to Andrews) ode to Hamilton, and Davis in boat with a Phantom mask singing the “The Phantom of the Opera” titular song.
But perhaps the most endearing part were the references to “My Fair Lady.” Julie Andrews starred as Eliza Doolittle in the original Broadway company in 1956, and this current iteration of “Mousical” was chock full of subtle and not so subtle nods. The most obvious was Wendy, The Ingénue mouse (played by Kyrie Courter) singing “Doesn’t That Sound Amazing” in a Cockney accent, a la Julie Andrews as the flower seller singing “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely” in the original production of “My Fair Lady.”
“How close can you dance so you get the joke right? That was the real challenge,” said music writer Zina Goldrich when asked about deciding which theater references to slip into the script.
The goal is for the show to keep growing and changing and absorbing new shows, Andrews said, with the hopes of it perhaps one day becoming an animated movie.
Hamilton discussed her hope that the production will be used to teach children about classics like “The King and I” and “Oklahoma!” “We hope to keep the love of theater and to nurture and cultivate future audiences,” she said. “If one student in the audience or one child in the audience has a great time or gets the bug, perhaps, our dream, is that the show may one day be licensed to be produced in schools and in original theater companies and so forth. And then it’s a wonderful teaching tool we would provide in an education packet, maybe a curriculum guide to go with it.”
Personally, my favorite story was Andrews’ recall of how they came up with the plot for the book in the first place. She recalled that she was working on Broadway in “Victor/Victoria” when her hairdresser told her they found a mouse in the basement of the theater and were going to set traps. The hairdresser joked that the mice had traveled just to see Andrews perform, thus effectively inspiring Andrews’ and Hamilton’s book.
“Something wonderful is going to cross your desk under your nose when you least expect,” Andrews said. “That’s when the magic happens.”
With only six days to prepare, often in fragmented pieces to accommodate the theater’s rehearsal for their current production of “Ragtime,” the cast of “The Great American Mousical” managed to bring something incredibly special to life. As one who grew up listening to her mother blast the original Broadway cast recording of “The Phantom of the Opera” from a record player, it was incredibly moving to see the love and care put into creating this world of “The Great American Mousical.” With mouse puns for days (“Squeaky Todd,” “The Feline Production,” “Hello Mousey,” and “Oklahomouse,” just to name a few) and theater references delicately interwoven, “The Great American Mousical” is simple enough for a younger audience, but endearing and clever enough to keep theater lovers of any age entertained.
“What was fun for us was watching the audience and the grown up people that had come in begin to realize what we were doing and what the references were and play that sort of mind game,” Andrews said.
Not many people get to thank their heroes. Not many people get to hear them speak about their creative process, or get validation that their admiration and respect has not been misplaced. At the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York, I was fortunate to be one of those exceptions. I think I may have blacked out a little when Julie Andrews walked on that stage (and knowing me, you know there were tears).
But to Ms. Julie Andrews, I write this directly to you. It was an absolute honor, and I could not be more grateful to have been welcomed into your world, even for just a moment. You were right. It really was lovely, and perfect in every day.
Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Bay Street Theater