Few pieces of theater resonate more in the American psyche than “The Sound of Music.” That’s thanks to Julie Andrews, spinning and singing on a Bavarian mountaintop in 1965. The Robert Wise film turned 50 this year, and it has been everywhere: a TV special about the making of the film, a tribute during the Academy Awards broadcast, newspaper articles, magazine covers and a special DVD release.
If you think you know the story of Maria and the captain and how they and his seven children sang their way to freedom, think again, says visionary director Jack O’Brien, who is now giving the stage version of the musical its due. (There was a 1998 revival starring Rebecca Luker that stayed true to the original.)
“No one’s touched that piece in 50 years,” O’Brien says. “It’s time to look at it again.”
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He spoke last month from New York City, where the company rehearsed until this week. Now they are in Boise at the Morrison Center, where the show will run its technical rehearsals before hitting the road for a national tour. This new NETWorks production will launch its trek across the country — and maybe to Broadway — after three preview performances here Sept. 14-16.
This is the sixth national tour to inhabit the Morrison Center for two or more weeks to do tech and dress rehearsals before heading out. This crew loaded in Sept. 1 and will pack out after the last show.
O’Brien is working closely with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the organization that owns the musical’s rights and protects the integrity of the music. Everything else is open to interpretation, O’Brien says.
He wants to make the musical a theater piece for this generation.
“We’ve grown up with it, but it hasn’t grown with us,” he says. “When people think of the film, they’re not aware that they cut a lot out of the story. The stage piece is much richer and denser. The film is sort of a time capsule. It feels more about the 1960s than when the story actually happened. It all has the feel of that first Broadway production in 1959. We don’t do that anymore.”
O’Brien aims to give it a fresh feel with inspired casting and by getting closer to the original story written by Maria von Trapp.
The three-time Tony winning director searched for an unknown to play Maria Rainer, a young novice at Nonnberg Abbey who is sent to work as a nanny for the seven children of a war hero and widower, Capt. Georg von Trapp, played by Ben Davis who won a Tony for Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme.”
O’Brien cast Kerstin Anderson, a 20-year-old Pace University graduate who will make her professional debut in the role. Ironically, that’s a very different take on the role, even through the real Maria was 20 when she married the captain. Andrews was 30 when she played Maria. Mary Martin, who originated it on Broadway in 1959 was 46 at the time. In fact, most of the leads are at least a decade younger than the original casts, including Mother Abbess, played by Ashley Brown who originated the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway.
“This is such a great opportunity to break through the preciousness of the piece and breathe new life into it,” Anderson says. “These older theater pieces, we think of them in sepia mode. But people were like we are today. ... And it frees me up from having to be Julie Andrews or Mary Martin.”
Anderson grew up in the Vermont mountains, and Rainer grew up in the mountains of Austria. She remembers watching the film of the musical multiple times on DVD as a child.
“I knew it by heart,” she says. “Once, when I was a kid, we took a road trip and my dad brought a DVD of the movie that had eight hours of interviews and DVD extras. We watched the whole thing.”
The story of “The Sound of Music” resonated with audiences worldwide. Maria endears herself to the children and eventually finds love with the captain. And yes, they marry, but there’s more to it than that. Both must follow their consciences and risk everything for their principles as they defy the political current of the time.
With this production, O’Brien said he and his team want to bring out more of a sense of the urgency of that time.
“We’re on the edge of World War II. You didn’t know who your friends were, everything was filled with ambiguity and uneasiness,” he says. “Perhaps a bit like now.”
Because the musical von Trapp family was known as the Trapp Family Singers, it was a natural for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to turn it into a musical — and what a musical it is. It’s filled with some of the best-loved and best-known songs in musical theater, including “Climb Every Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and, of course, the title song.
“The book is so literate, and the characters are elegantly drawn. It’s fun to refresh ourselves with this piece,” O’Brien says.