By Michael A. Lipton
Updated December 13, 1999 12:00 PM

Last July, Jennifer Edwards was driving along with her stepmother, Julie Andrews, not far from Andrews’s East Hampton, N.Y., home. Their talk turned from family matters to the stark fact that the 64-year-old Broadway and screen star can no longer sing. “She said that when she lost her voice, she had lost her identity,” says Edwards, 42, an L.A.-based actress and the daughter by a previous marriage of film director Blake Edwards, Andrews’s husband of 30 years. “I told her,.’God forbid if you really have lost your voice. But you have to remember that you are one of the world’s great actresses.’ Whereupon Andrews countered: “Oh, no, no. I’m not an actress. I’m a singer.”

However she views herself, the lilting voice that gave bloomin’ spunk to Eliza Doolittle onstage in 1956’s My Fair Lady, lent more than a spoonful of sugar to 1964’s Mary Poppins and made the hills come alive in 1965’s The Sound of Music has been musically silenced ever since June 1997, when Andrews underwent surgery to remove a small polyp from her vocal cords. “The doctor told her she would be singing again in six weeks,” says Jennifer. “Now it’s been two years, and it still hasn’t returned.”

To stay busy and fulfilled, Andrews has been pursuing her second great talent. In Relative Values, a British film due out next spring, she plays a widowed countess. And in One Special Night, a CBS movie that aired Nov. 28, Andrews, in her first major appearance since her operation, was reunited with old friend James Garner, her costar in 1964’s The Americanization of Emily and 1982’s Victor/Victoria.

Victor/Victoria’s rebirth as a Broadway musical in 1995 marked Andrews’s last singing role before her surgery. And it proved one of her most demanding assignments. Reprising her screen turn as an aspiring chanteuse who impersonates a man to become a star, “it was like she was singing two roles in a way,” says biographer Robert Windeler (Julie Andrews: A Life on Stage and Screen). “She was in virtually every scene, with eight numbers. At 61, doing eight numbers is very demanding.” As was her eight-performance-a-week schedule. Andrews missed dozens of performances because of sore throat, laryngitis and other ills.

Then, toward the end of her two-year run, she was diagnosed with a noncancerous polyp on her vocal cords. Andrews took her final bows on June 8, 1997, and underwent surgery soon afterward. As she recounted to Barbara Walters last February, “I went in for a routine procedure that I was told would not be threatening to my vocal cords. And since then…I’ve just been unable to sing. I simply can’t do a song for you.”

Andrews’s fans first learned of the operation’s outcome in November 1998. “If you heard [her voice], you’d weep,” Blake Edwards, 77, told Parade magazine. “I don’t think she’ll sing again. It’s an absolute tragedy.”

Andrews tried to downplay her spouse’s grim prognosis. “It’s like an athlete [who] takes a season out, and that’s what I’ll be doing,” she told a reporter. But to Walters, she admitted, “I think to some degree I’m in a form of denial because to not be able to communicate through my voice—I think I would be totally devastated.”

Her vocal problems resurfaced last winter in Montreal, where she shot One Special Night. During a scene that called for her to raise her voice, Andrews struggled through several takes. “I said, ‘Julie, don’t do that! We can fix it [during dubbing],’ Garner recalls. “In everyday conversation, she was fine. It was just during moments like that you noticed a problem. I’m hoping she can find a doctor who can fix it—because we would all like to hear that voice again.”

No one more than Andrews. Last May, trying to cope with her inability to sing, she underwent grief therapy at Sierra Tucson, an Arizona rehab clinic noted for treating celebrity clients. Since then, Andrews has been buoyed by her family, including Jennifer’s brother Geoffrey, 40; Emma Walton, 37, from Andrews’s first marriage to set designer Tony Walton; and Amy, 25, and Joanna, 24, Vietnamese-born orphans whom Blake and Julie adopted as infants in 1975, “We told her that it’s okay if you want to fall apart,” says Jennifer. “She does have some depression. Mostly we don’t see it. It’s not her personality to show such emotions.”

Nor does she often vent about her marriage to Edwards, for whom Andrews has starred in seven movies, including 10 and S.O.B. Friends say they have always been a study in contrasts. “He just had a kind of rougher outlook on things,” says Will Prappas, an entertainment manager who worked for the couple in the late ’70s. “She is very refined.” Andrews agrees. “[Blake]’s the first to dive off the high board,” she told New York’s Newsday in 1997. “And that’s been good for me, because I’m this square, uptight lady who’s very careful.” Despite their differences, “they’re best friends,” says Jennifer.

In recent months, they have become a bicoastal couple. Edwards keeps a place in L.A., where he’s preparing to shoot a new comedy, It Never Rains, with Chevy Chase. Andrews (who recently published her third children’s book, Little Bo, and is at work on her memoirs) stays mostly at the couple’s East Hampton home. Not far from their Manhattan townhouse, she visits a new throat specialist, Dr. Gwen Korovin, whose patients have included Celine Dion and Luciano Pavarotti.

Meanwhile, Andrews has been carefully rationing out her public appearances. At last June’s Tony Awards, she very briefly sang excerpts from Stephen Sondheim songs with old pal Carol Burnett. Based on that appearance, “people are thinking I’m singing fulltime,” Andrews has said. “Although I’m getting better, it’s not quite that.” Indeed, while she vocalizes at home for about a half hour in the morning and a half hour each night, “her voice tires easily and gets raspy,” says Jennifer.

Still, no one is ruling out a comeback. “She has this tenacity and this willpower,” says her stepdaughter, “and I think that because of her bright spirit, she will have a greater chance of singing again.” Wouldn’t that be loverly.

Michael A. Lipton

Alison Singh Gee, Mark Dagostino and Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City