The Sound of Music is one of the most recognizable shows in the American musical theatre canon. Whether you saw the original 1959 Broadway production starring Mary Martin, the 1965 film with Julie Andrews or the 2013 NBC live event headlined by Carrie Underwood, you know exactly what the hills are alive with… Or do you? Jack O'Brien, director of the new national tour of The Sound of Music, thinks that audiences may not know the show as well as they think they do.
Many of O'Brien's new ideas came about after he was invited to a tech rehearsal for the first Russian-language production of The Sound of Music. After hearing the music performed in a language different from his own, he found himself "immensely moved" and thought, "Maybe I should take a look at this." When the tour presented itself, O'Brien originally did not want to direct. "I thought, 'I don't want to do this.' Then I opened the script, and I saw two things that shocked me: one was 1938, which is the date it takes place. I thought, 'I don't think I've ever seen a Sound of Music that looks like it was from the '30s, the night before the war started…' That never occurred to me," he said. "Suddenly I thought, 'This is a sort of scary situation.'
"Then I thought, 'Wait a minute… Mary Martin, when she created this role, was 46 years old, and [Maria] is what, 20? What if I lowered all of the ages about 20 years for everybody? What a different story this would be to listen to.' Then I was hooked."
The newly staged version of the show, which began previews Sept. 14 in Boise, ID, includes all of the songs audiences know and love as well as some music that has, up until now, only been used in the film. "Between Jack [O'Brien], Danny [Mefford, the choreographer] and myself, I've created all new transitions," explained music supervisor Andy Einhorn, "and we're making the score flow as seamlessly as possible, so that you're completely unaware that there's a scene change happening. We're using the music to dramatically move us from place to place. It's flowing like a movie."
The music isn't the only thing audiences can expect to see a change in, however. Actors Kerstin Anderson (Maria Rainer), Ashley Brown (The Mother Abbess) and Ben Davis (Capt. Georg Von Trapp) have put new spins on their characters.
O'Brien was looking for a newcomer to play Maria. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if you never saw this girl before?' If she walked out and sang 'The Sound of Music' and you thought, 'Who's that? I like her!,' maybe you'd follow her all evening as opposed to saying, 'What is she going to do in this song?' That's the first impulse you should have: I've never been here before," he said.
For O'Brien, the breath of fresh air Anderson brought into the audition room with her was all that he needed to make the decision that she would be his Maria.
"I had gone through so many girls, and they were talented and lovely and very well trained and appropriate, but they all felt like they were falling somewhere between Julie Andrews and Mary Martin," he said. "This girl walks into the room, and she's tall and she's sort of a jock – I mean, she came galloping into the room like a girl field-hockey player – and I thought, 'You know who that is? That's the world's best babysitter.' And that's what Maria is!"
Anderson, who grew up watching Julie Andrews on a two-tape VHS set, plans to bring Maria back to her "mountain girl" roots. As a native of Vermont (where the real von Trapp family settled), Anderson "knows the mountains."
"I'm a total mountain girl," said Anderson, "and that's sort of what Jack has decided to bring out of this Maria. I think, because I was raised in Vermont, that's what I get to bring to it as well."
When speaking of Anderson's performance, Einhorn said, "She's bringing her personality as a spitfire because the real Maria is a spitfire. The first lyric that the nuns say about her is 'How do solve a problem like Maria?' So when you hear it that way, it actually makes you realize that this was somebody who was going outside the norm and breaking all the rules."
As for Captain Von Trapp, audiences should expect to see a more prominent "sensuality and sexuality" in his relationship with Maria. "There's a sensuality and a sexuality there that [Jack O'Brien] has not been afraid to talk about and to bring out," said Ben Davis, the tour's Georg von Trapp. "I think that's part of life, and that's part of what it was. So that part — without over-stating it — it's there and, I mean, you feel that sensuality and that sexuality between them without it being… you know…"
First Look at Newcomer With "Star-Making Magic" and Broadway Vets Prepping for New Touring Sound of Music!
Davis also hopes to humanize the Captain as opposed to solely playing him as a strict authoritarian. "The Captain can be played very stern, but there's got to be a reason behind it. There's got to still be a human behind it," he said.
The Mother Abbess, often played as an old woman, has been aged down by 20 years for the new production. Ashley Brown has transformed The Mother Abbess from a mother figure for Maria to a sister who's still facing some of her own struggles.
"Instead of being the one who's all resolute and 'This is how it's done, and this is how you do life,' it's like I'm still fighting too – that Maria and I have more in common and that I've been where she's been," said Brown. "The Mother Abbess is human. Even nuns wake up not knowing if they're in the right place or not."
Brown believes that the role does not have to be performed by an older actress as long as it is done by someone who can "earn" the iconic ballad "Climb Every Mountain." "There's a lot of scene work," she said. "You have to earn that song. It's not just closing Act Two. You have to earn it… So that's been a big journey for me as we've been in rehearsals finding that way to earn that song."
All three actors agreed that O'Brien is an "actor's dream" to work with. "He's so detailed," Anderson explained. "He sees everything in his mind and he's so generous to the actor in helping them see what he sees – especially with a piece that's so well known. The first couple days it was like breaking yourself of the norms of The Sound of Music, but he does that in just such a gracious way."
"I can't wait to see what the country's going to think of something they think they know," O'Brien said. "Another look at it is gonna make them think, 'Wait a minute…I thought I knew this. Maybe I don't.'"
The Sound of Music national tour officially opens Sept. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA.
To see a full list of cities, click here.
For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.