The anniversaries are coming thick and fast here in the Parallel Julieverse and this week marks another major milestone: the Sixtieth Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway premiere of The Boy Friend at New York’s Royale Theatre on 30 September, 1954. As has been discussed in previous posts and as numerous commentators frequently proclaim, The Boy Friend was a watershed event for Julie, marking her big trans-Atlantic move to America and her debut on the Broadway stage. Even Julie herself routinely singles out The Boy Friend as one of the three major career-making breaks in her life, sandwiched between the other two: her childhood debut at the London Palladium and the launch of her juvenile career on the English variety circuit, and her later casting by Walt Disney in Mary Poppins and the subsequent transition it afforded to Hollywood superstardom.
The Boy Friend signalled, in an appropriately dramatic fashion, the launch of Julie’s relatively condensed but hugely influential decade-long career as the Queen of Broadway. A charming twenties-themed musical pastiche by Sandy Wilson, The Boy Friend had already become a huge hit on London’s West End in 1953/54, with Anne Rogers in the lead ingenue role of Polly Browne, and the decision was made to transfer the show to New York. Rather than disturb the existing London company which was still playing to record-breaking houses every night, the producers decided to assemble a completely new second company and set about casting an all-English troupe of relative unknowns, with the young eighteen year old Julie Andrews tagged for the plum role of Polly Browne. The Broadway production had well documented problems during rehearsal but it opened on September 30, 1954, the eve of Julie’s nineteenth birthday, to glowing reviews, with special fulsome praise for Julie, ultimately earning her a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. In the year that followed, as she performed nightly in the season’s new hit show, Julie garnered a good deal of media attention—such as here and here and here and here—much of it trumpeting her as the latest toast of Broadway. The Boy Friend in turn led to Julie’s casting in the even bigger hit show, My Fair Lady and, well, the rest as they say is entertainment history.
Apart from its significance to her professional fortunes, The Boy Friend also holds a special place in Julie’s personal affections as well. She speaks very fondly of her time in the show and forged several important lifelong friendships during its run: notably, with costar Dilys Laye, who was Julie’s New York flatmate and who would remain a close confidante right through to her passing in 2009, with producer Cy Feuer who described being so struck by Julie’s “glorious soprano…poise and…raw talent that it sorta took my breath away” (Feuer and Gross, 193), and with composer Sandy Wilson, who remained in regular touch with Julie for decades until his own recent passing in August of this year and who, as discussed in an earlier post, even attempted to develop another show for Julie in the form of a musicalization of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories.
Julie’s affections for The Boy Friend were so strong and enduring that she chose the show as the vehicle with which to make her directorial debut, some fifty years later, when she helmed a 2005 summer production of the musical for the influential Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. By all accounts, the experience was a memorable one for Julie and the production met with considerable acclaim. It enjoyed a very successful national tour and there was even talk of a possible Broadway transfer but it didn’t come to pass.
So this week won’t you please Charleston with me as the Parallel Julieverse marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway show that helped give Julie Andrews to the world. “We scheme about and dream about and we’ve been known to scream about that certain thing called The Boy Friend!”
Feuer, Cy and Gross, Ken. I Got the Show Right Here: The Amazing True Story of How an Obscure Brooklyn Horn Player Became the Last Great Broadway Showman. New York: Applause Books, 2003.
Wilson, Sandy. I Could Be Happy: An Autobiography. New York : Stein and Day, 1975.