Plummer on Plummer: Christopher Plummer Recalls A Word or Two for New One-Man Play

By Harry Haun
18 Jul 2012

Christopher Plummer
Photo by Andrew Eccles

This opus evolved in spurts and fragments from speeches Plummer gave at various charity events. In time, he thought it should generate a little money for his own charity. "I wanted to give it more of a production, elongate it a little bit more so there was more substance in it, so I asked Des to help set it up as a production.

"What we're going to do is add a tiny bit of music underneath certain passages to lift them — very subtle because it's about words and not music—and it will relieve the tension of too much speech. The lighting, of course, is essential. Lighting can take the mood straight into the piece and then out again. Projections perhaps, but not many. If you have too much to look at, the audience stops listening to the words."

McAnuff's experience in helming one-man shows consists entirely of Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, which is quite a different kettle of gefilte fish, but he has directed Plummer at Stratford before, most recently in The Tempest. "To hear Mr. Plummer," reviewed Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, "is to be bewitched by a spell that only authoritative classical actors can cast."

In Plummer's case, that spell stretched even farther back to radio and the Canadian Broadcast Company. "I grew up in radio, at the same time when Orson Welles was being such a radio star," he recalled. "God! we had some wonderful people to emulate and to learn from. In Toronto in the mid-to-late '40s, the radio had an extraordinary high standard. It was perhaps some of the best radio dramas being done in the world. There were a group of actors — I'd say about ten of them — who could do 25 different kinds of voices each.

They were absolutely trained for radio — and brilliant. John Drainie was probably the best radio actor in the world, and he usually played the leading roles. I joined that company, which was thrilling when I was about 19, and Orson would come up every now and then and be guest-star.

"Andrew Allen [head of CBC Radio Drama from 1943 to 1955] was the resident genius who brought music and words together in these shows. We did everything, from modern, contemporary, new stuff to Peer Gynt to the Shakespeares. We did everything on the radio. It was wonderful. I miss that medium so much."

Plummer in "The Sound of Music."
Courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Despite his glorious speaking voice, Plummer has only been able to lift it twice in song — but both earned dividends well beyond his expectations. Cyrano won him the 1974 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. And 1965's film version of The Sound of Music, where he was the stern, whistle-tooting patriarch of the singing Von Trapps, earned him a permanent high-profile in the public consciousness.

The actor has grown more comfortable over the years with the palm leaves his Captain Von Trapp got from the masses. "It only bothers you when you think they haven't seen anything else," he said. "It's just that the people see one thing, and they stick to it. Poor old Clark Gable was tortured by people who only remembered him for 'Gone With the Wind.' It's very nice to be known for 'The Sound of Music,' and I admire Julie [Andrews], and I admired Robert Wise [the director] very much.

"I wouldn't mind another one. I probably sing a bit better now that I'm terribly older than I did when I was young. If there was a great acting role as well as singing role, I'd like to do another musical. I had fun doing Cyrano. The serious parts in musicals aren't really challenging enough. Andrew Lloyd Webber once asked me to do a musical of his, and I asked him if you could sorta write some dialogue so that I could at least balance myself on stage and do what I do best and then sing along side it, but he wouldn't. It was all music. The whole damned thing was music, so . . ."