It may surprise you that Maria's romantic rival in The Sound of Music doesn't come at you like Gale Sondergaard's Spider Woman, and that's because of the light, life-sized way Jan Maxwell has pitched the part. "People would tell me, 'Oh, you've got the bitch role,' but, when I looked at the script, I realized she doesn't say or do anything mean. I've always said about Elsa: She's not a bad person. She's just wrong. I think she'd be a very good match for the captain. It's just that Maria is the perfect match."
In real life Captain von Trapp was courting a princess when he met Maria, but even Rodgers and Hammerstein were obliged to back off from that fantasy, demoting the dear lady to a widowed baroness. "In my mind, I don't think she came from money. I play her as a working woman who knows how to handle herself around men and is very charming." That attack brings a reality to a character who could have gone by elegantly above it all.
"Aliens" is her take on the von Trapp children. "No one can see this, but I get a kick out of thinking, when I come back in with the kids singing behind me, that they've been following me around the house singing all that time." In a show Alpine-high in sugar, Maxwell's frau (a baroness in the film version) is the happy antidote. "I provide salt for the show," she likes to say.
Her own little alien, Will, is nearing age three. Maxwell is married to an actor (The Dying Gaul's Robert Emmet Lunney), but they didn't meet in a play. "Actually, I'd love to say that," she admits, "but we met in a bar. It's not really a story you want to tell your grandkids."
[Jan Maxwell recently took eight weeks off from the Broadway Sound of Music; she returns to the role of Elsa, Sept. 23]