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How Julie Andrews’s voice was stolen by a medical disaster

They’ve got confidence: the von Trapp family from “The Sound of Music.” From left: Chairmian Carr, as Liesl, Nicholas Hammond, as Friedrich, Julie Andrews, as Maria, Heather Menzies as Louisa, Duane Chase, as Kurt, Angela Cartwright, as Brigitta; front row, from left, Kym Karath, as Gretl, and Debbie Turner, as Marta. The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

It was 1997, and Julie Andrews’s legendary four-octave voice wasn’t what it once had been. Sure, she was over 60 — long after many sopranos decide they have to pack it in — but she was just as active as ever. Indeed, just a few years before, she and husband Blake Edwards had turned their landmark 1982 gender-bending film “Victor/Victoria” into a Broadway musical, and then into a TV movie. But the voice that gave the world “Do-Re-Mi” wasn’t do-re-mi-ing as it should.

After a trip to a doctor, Andrews learned she had a non-cancerous nodules in her throat. Such a diagnosis didn’t necessarily mean disaster — such nodules can sometimes be treated without surgery. But Andrews checked into Mt. Sinai Hospital to go under the knife.

Though she would try to sing again, her voice — stolen by what she alleged was medical malpractice in a 1999 lawsuit — would never be the same.

“Singing has been a cherished a gift, and my inability to sing has been a devastating blow,” Andrews said at the time.

Andrews’s lawsuit against two doctors and Mt. Sinai was settled in 2000 — the terms were not disclosed. Ever the class act, Andrews released a gracious statement.

“I am glad to have settled this case in a favorable manner and am glad to close this chapter on an event which was unfortunate for all concerned,” she said.

But for Disney fans and Broadway enthusiasts, “unfortunate” wasn’t a strong enough word. This was the woman who played Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins. At its peak, Andrews’s voice was by turns bold, silvery, delicate and brash. It seemed there was no vocal feat she couldn’t pull off. Here she is as a youth singing the polonaise “Je suis Titania” from Ambrose Thomas’s opera “Mignon.” Music theory whizzes out there have permission to marvel at the high F above top C.

Andrews, now 79, recovered gracefully from her alleged defeat at the hands of surgeons. She became Dame Julie Andrews courtesy of Queen Elizabeth. She starred in “The Princess Diaries” (2001), gaining legions of fans who likely wouldn’t know a von Trapp from a van Helsing. And she now reigns supreme over the “Sound of Music” nostalgia industry — putting in an appearance at the Oscars to applaud Lady Gaga’s medley of music from the show, and granting an interview to Diane Sawyer Wednesday night during ABC’s 50th anniversary celebration that had Twitter blubbering.

[Why is everyone so surprised that Lady Gaga can sing?]

Seeing Julie recreate the walk down the aisle brings tears to my eyes,” one user among many searching for the Kleenex wrote

But the road back was — is — hard. In one interview not long after her lawsuit was settled, Andrews seemed on the verge of an existential crisis.

“To not sing with an orchestra, to not be able to communicate through my voice which I’ve done all my life and not to be able to phrase lyrics and give people that kind of joy, I think I would be totally devastated,” Andrews told Barbara Walters in 2000. Asked whether she would ever sing again, her answer wasn’t encouraging.

“Well, I can only say I hope so,” Andrews said. “I have to be optimistic. I think to some degree I’m in … a form of denial about it.”

And Andrews’s attempts to sing since she lost her voice have not always been met with acclaim. After a 2010 performance, one cruel reviewer who likely also hates butterflies, lollipops and small children wrote: “After undergoing surgery a dozen years ago to remove a non-cancerous polyp on her vocal chords, she feared she would never sing again. On the evidence of this performance … somebody should have stopped her from trying.”

But Andrews has found one way forward: what she calls “speak-singing.” This was on display in “The Princess Diaries 2” (2004) after director Garry Marshall pitched her on the idea of a song for her in the film.

“If you could create a song that had about five low notes in it and I sort of sung-spoke it,” she said she told the director, “let’s maybe consider it.”

The result may not be “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” but proved inspiring.

“It was very moving because, you know, most of the crew hadn’t heard Julie singing in a long time,” Marshall said.  “… Guys with tattoos got a little teary.”

So, about to enter her ninth decade, Andrews is holding on to her sense of humor — and hope.

“If you wanted a rendition of ‘Old Man River’ you might get it, but I’m not singing as much these days,” she said last month. Yet: “When one door closes another window opens.”