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Actress Christine Andreas brings firsthand experience to The Light in the Piazza.

In 1976 neophyte actress Christine Andreas had played only one supporting role on Broadway. But when casting began for the much-anticipated twentieth-anniversary revival of My Fair Lady, Andreas never doubted she would be Broadway's next Eliza Doolittle. "I knew that job was mine," she says today. "I felt it in every cell of my body. Seven hundred girls in America and London auditioned for Eliza, but I didn't think about that. I had the ignorance of youth."

She also had the passion. "I can't remember when I first fell in love with musical theater," says Andreas, who opens next week at the Fox Theatre in the national company of the acclaimed musical play The Light in the Piazza. "It seemed to start from the first time I can remember anything. My mom is a natural singer, so there was always singing in the house. She sang all the current show tunes, so I knew musicals before I walked. It was very natural for me to express myself in sound."

The family lived in Suffern, New York, just 45 minutes from Broadway, so it was easy enough to take the bus into Manhattan: "I got a job on my first audition, a summer-stock show in North Carolina. As you grow older, you become fond of saying, 'In those days....' But in those days it seemed like you could go from one thing to another. When you begin in theater, you can take any job that comes. You're honing yourself. After you've established yourself, you have to be more strategic. You want the work to move you forward. But in the beginning, everything you do is forward."

For Andreas the huge step forward came with My Fair Lady. To everyone's surprise but her own, she was indeed cast as Eliza. The production was a long-running hit, and she earned a Tony Award nomination for her first starring role.

The CD of that 1976 production was released last month. Has she played it? "Of course!" she answers, laughing.

How do you sound? "I sound good! I sound happy. And that's how I felt singing that score. It's a joyful score. My Fair Lady is a crafted, beautiful, perfect score, and you don't tire of singing it. That was a wonderful experience: working with really seasoned actors who were kind and generous to a green actress."

Three decades and numerous Broadway musicals and tours (not to mention three shows — West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music — at the Muny) later, Andreas is now the seasoned actor working with younger performers. In The Light in the Piazza, she portrays an overprotective mother from North Carolina who's vacationing in Italy with a special-needs daughter. Andreas has a built-in affinity for the role: She is herself the mother of a special-needs son. "My son is mentally challenged," she explains. "At nineteen he's more like a five-year-old. Because he wanted his own life, I found him a beautiful group home fifteen minutes from my house in Westchester. Four days after he moved in, I was offered this tour. How's that for fate?"

Despite the musical's six Tony Awards (including one for Victoria Clark, who created the role Andreas portrays), Andreas has never felt obligated to copy that original performance. "During rehearsals the director, Bart Sher, said to me, 'You've been living this experience, so you have something different to bring. I'm going to watch what you do, and so long as it's in alignment with what this piece wants to be, that's fine with me.' But in fact, I'm a classicist. I like to listen to the original recordings. I love to hear what the composer and writer wanted. I'm just so happy to be in a musical where everyone who worked on it was united by a singular vision. They all wanted to tell the same tender, delicate story about the transformation of the human heart. This is not bombastic, chandelier-falling, gratuitous-high-note-wailing theater. It offers the viewer a more internal, human experience. Now it's our job to deliver that experience."

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