When it comes to showbiz mothers and daughters, two of the most prolific are Julie Andrews, the iconic star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and Emma Walton Hamilton, writer, educator, and cofounder of Sag Harbor's acclaimed Bay Street Theater.
Together, the pair has collaborated on several ventures, including the book The Great American Mousical (which was later adapted into a musical cowritten by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich), and now the Netflix series Julie's Greenroom. Cocreated by Andrews, Hamilton, and Judy Rothman, the series stars Andrews as Miss Julie, the leader of a children's theater program. In each episode, Julie and her students — an inclusive assortment of puppets nicknamed the "Greenies" — learn about a different facet of theatermaking, such as writing or dancing, as they create their own theatrical work.
The show, which premiered in March, comes at a time when Andrews and Hamilton, prominent arts education activists, are in high gear as they work to keep arts funding part of the national conversation. The two talk about arts education and its importance, Carol Burnett, and their experiences working with puppets.
Tell me about the origin of Julie's Greenroom, and how you decided to focus on the territory that the show covers.
Julie Andrews: I've long wanted to introduce children to the wonder of the arts. We've been friends with the Henson Company for years, and we had a get-together. Lisa Henson said, "Have you ever been interested in doing something about the arts?" Of course, my heart leapt and I said, "Yes, I have!"
Emma Walton Hamilton: There are 13 episodes. Netflix decided that for us. Then it was incumbent upon us to zoom in on which art forms we thought were essential to introduce. Because the series leads up to the characters putting on their own show in the final episode, we had to factor in which forms would be needed. Certain things were obvious, like songwriting and acting or dancing, set design. Then we had a few extra goodies, like percussion, which was all about fun.
Julie, what is it like acting opposite puppets? How hands on were you and Emma when it came to creating the characters?
Julie: It's like playing in a beautiful sandbox. Our stage is raised about 6 feet so the puppeteers can stand below and manipulate the puppets above their heads. They are brilliant at it. I don't see the human beings. I really, honestly, believe that I'm talking to these wonderful puppet people. They're magical.
Emma: Henson was very generous in collaborating with us. We created the original characters, and then they submitted a bunch of different potential designers. We brainstormed whether they would be monster-style puppets, à la the Muppets…
Julie: My desire was to have them as much like children as possible.
Emma: Eventually, the wonderful designer Elanna Allen came forward, and we knew immediately those were our characters. And then it was the most extraordinary process of watching them be built by the Creature Shop.
Julie: Our first visit to the Creature Shop is one of the days I will never, ever forget. There was just so much to see and admire, and be gobsmacked by. The detail that goes into them. Do the eyes blink? Don't they blink?
Emma: We were constantly reviewing foam samples to select the right skin tone for this character or that character, or hair samples, or fabric swatches.
Julie: And then we walked in and there they all were, set up for us on a table. They had come to life suddenly.
The show itself is very inclusive; one character is in a wheelchair, another is gender nonconforming. Was that a decision made right from the get-go?
Emma: That was a very conscious choice on all of our parts. We really, really wanted this to be a show where kids could see themselves somewhere. They stretch across all socioeconomic boundaries. They're totally inclusive. That's the beauty of theater and the performing arts in general.
Julie, you have a long history and friendship with Carol Burnett, and she guest-stars in the final episode. What was it like to act opposite her again?
Julie: It was a love fest. She's the only guest who doesn't play herself. She comes in as Mrs. Brightful, think of Fulbright, a very, very wealthy lady who has always yearned to be in the theater, but she's a wannabe. When I saw her in her costume, which was bright orange with a great blond wig and lots of bling, it was quite hilarious. Her first entrance, when she bursts through the doors, was delicious. She's a great chum and we've known each other for so long. She happens to be Emma's godmother, as well. I'm hoping, if we get picked up for a second season, that she'll continue the role.
What is the importance of the arts in the lives of young people?
Emma: We see, all the time, the degree to which the arts can change lives and help young people find their voice. There are amazing statistics that Americans for the Arts is full of, in terms of how they can help academic performance and ensure that people have greater success in life because of things like problem solving and collaboration, empathy and tolerance. So to us, the fact that they're threatened…
Julie: …Budget-wise, is terrifying. The arts are usually the first thing to be cut in schools or regional programs. It is something that we're both passionate about and would like to help preserve.
Emma: We started writing the series long before the election. Who knew that it would be so fortuitous in terms of its timing? But needless to say, we've been very vocal. We will continue to be as vocal as possible.
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