The Sound of Music is the most produced show of the prolific Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II canon. The reasons why should be evident when the touring revival opens at the Kravis Center on Tuesday, but its popularity is also tied to the 1965 five-time Oscar-winning movie.
As to other reasons it is so frequently performed, the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization’s president and chief creative officer Theodore S. Chapin puts it bluntly. “It’s good. The score is very good and God knows it’s a story that involves broken families put back together again, realizing things that are in front of you without knowing what that means.”
The Sound of Music is the final collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with the death of lyricist Hammerstein from cancer occurring nine months after the musical premiered on Broadway in 1959.
“In some ways, it’s a recapitulation of everything they did,” notes Chapin. “It’s almost an operetta. They just knew how to do that so well. And the score is pretty astonishing. If you have good tunes coming at you, one after another, it’s hard to beat.”
The musical won five Tony Awards originally and ran for more than four-and-a-half years on Broadway. Still, the stage show would be overshadowed by the success of the Julie Andrews-Christopher Plummer film. “I think when the movie opened and became its own phenomenon, a lot of people kind of forgot that it had been a show,” says Chapin. “One of the things about this production that I’m proud of and happy about, with the exception of the song, ‘Something Good,’ which is from the movie, aside from that, this tour is the Broadway libretto, word for word.”
The show relates the mostly true story of nunnery postulant Maria Rainer, assigned as a governess to the seven children of widower Georg von Trapp, a captain in the Austrian navy. Despite initial friction, Maria and Georg fall in love and marry, but with the rise of the Nazis and world war imminent, the von Trapps are forced to leave their home and take refuge over the Alps into Switzerland.
Chapin is one of the prime producers of this Sound of Music tour, largely because he put together the creative team. Perhaps his most inspired decision was hiring three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien (Hairspray) to direct it.
“With Jack O’Brien, I discovered that he had a passion for ‘The Sound of Music,’” says Chapin. “Who knew? Jack O’Brien doesn’t do touring productions, but he loves the show, so he agreed and then gathered an extraordinary team around him. Somebody said that Doug Schmidt, who did the design, nobody knows how to make flat scenery look more three-dimensional. Because it’s a touring production, it’s got to be basically flat. I think the solutions that Jack and Doug have come up with are very clever and theatrically smart.”
Still, this touring production might never have occurred had O’Brien not traveled to Russia. Yes, Russia.
“Jack had actually seen a production in Moscow. It was the first authorized production in Russia, so we got some money out of that one,” says Chapin. More importantly, “Jack sent me an email that was so passionate. He didn’t particularly like that production, but he said there was heat between Maria and the captain. He said, ‘People don’t realize how good this story is.’ So that’s what started this to happen.” Nor did it hurt that O’Brien had seen Mary Martin in the show on Broadway when he was much younger “and remembered the magic of her onstage.”
This tour began two years ago, the 50th anniversary year of the Sound of Music movie’s release. O’Brien not only avoids using most of the new songs in the film, but some of the iconic images invented for the film.
Early in the first act, we are introduced to Maria in the Austrian Alps as she sings the title song, but “what’s she not doing? She’s not twirling,” notes Chapin. “Why is she not twirling? Because that’s about a helicopter (shot). The brilliant thought of starting the movie in the clouds, and the shot picks her up. It was a very clever solution to a problem in the movie, but it’s not that she’s so joyous, it’s ‘This is where I live.’ ”
“If you can make an audience that knows this show pay attention to what she’s singing, that’s impressive. Jack said he told women who were auditioning, ‘This is your soliloquy. This is the one time you address the audience.’ In Shakespearean form, it usually comes after we get to know the character a little bit. The innovation here is that it’s right at the beginning.”
Audience members who are only familiar with the movie of Sound of Music may be startled to discover the original placement and motivations of some songs. “One of the things about the movie is there were three songs that were repurposed,” says Chapin. “’Do Re Mi’ in the play is the moment that the children meet Maria and they’re going to test her. But she says, ‘I’m going to teach you how to sing,’ so that by the end of ‘Do Re Mi’ in the stage production, we know that they’re going to be OK. In the movie, they moved that to later on.
“’The Lonely Goatherd’ took place in the bedroom because frankly it’s a loud noisy song to drown out the thunder. ‘My Favorite Things’ doesn’t really have a lot of action to it, but Julie Andrews sang it with the children. So now, put back in its original setting, the audience may go ‘Why are the Mother Abbess and Maria singing “My Favorite Things” in the first scene?’ But there’s enough that’s familiar and, yes, they do climb over the mountain at the end.”
This production was always intended to tour the country, not to come to Broadway. Why? New York “has always been a little wonky about ‘The Sound of Music,’” says Chapin. “The last production that was here — (starring Rebecca Luker in 1998) — wasn’t a financial success and that’s what the theater owners remember more than anything. But I think it’s a good enough production that the New York critical community would get it. The critical community out there across the country has really gotten it.
“It’s time. It’s a good production. It’s a show that people like. It should be rewarded,” Chapin says. “But I’m a realist and theaters are booked up years in advance. But maybe a theater will have an interim six months that they don’t know what to do with.”
Whether or not it eventually goes to Broadway, Chapin feels there are plenty of reasons to see it at the Kravis Center. “Because it turns out to be one of the most extraordinary musicals ever created. People have loved it for 50 years. There is no diminution in people’s admiration for it. It’s become a kind of American musical calling card around the world. But at the end of the day, it tells a great story and it’s got great music. Anything that you want out of a theater experience, you’ll get out of ‘The Sound of Music.’ and this is a first-rate production of it.”
THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. May 9–14. Tickets: From $29 up. Call: 561-832-7469.