How do you solve a problem like casting Maria in a new production of The Sound of Music? For director Jack O’Brien, it was the traditional process, but after seeing hundreds of candidates, he found his leading lady when Pace University student Kerstin Anderson walked through the door. The show has its official opening tonight at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tackling a role made famous on stage by Mary Martin and on film by Julie Andrews is a daunting task for anyone. Here Anderson talks about those challenges, the new musical material, and the one question she would ask Dame Andrews (who turns 80 on Thursday) if given the chance.
Previous touring productions of The Sound of Music have starred women with already established careers; women like Florence Henderson and Marie Osmond. What is it like for you to be starting your professional career with this show?
It’s insane. There are so many people who have played this role who are wickedly famous. It’s quite spectacular to be doing this show, which I feel is a really important story to be telling. To work with Jack O’Brien and the creative team and then all the people I get to work with on stage—it’s a complete dream come true.
When you thought about how your career would start, what shows did you have in mind?
Oh goodness, I grew up watching The Sound of Music. It was always a part of my life, but I never imagined that I’d play Maria. For me, it’s Julie Andrews as Maria Reiner, it’s just so her to me. The role I thought I’d be playing was Chorus Girl #3. I was lucky enough to play Clara in The Light in the Piazza [at Pace University] directed by Victoria Clark. [Clark won a Tony Award for her performance as the mother in Piazza.] One role I’d love to play is The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods. That was the show that really got me hooked on theatre. I think the conflict of the story is really interesting.
The music in The Light in the Piazza is much more complicated than the music in The Sound of Music. Can you compare the challenges of composer Adam Guettel’s score to tackling a role like Maria that is so beloved by millions?
The harder one is getting to play a well-known role, mostly because I knew it so well. Figuring out what I could bring to the character, that’s harder—it’s a role I watched since I was five. I think what was interesting about Piazza was because the music is so intricate, it’s almost like a totally unique character in the show. Clara is not all there mentally and she uses music to express herself. Maria feels music in the mountains and everywhere.
What do you bring to the role?
Jack O’Brien is a gift to work with. He liberated me from thinking I needed to be Julie Andrews. He brought out pieces of me that could be Maria. I’m 21. Mary Martin was in her 40s and Julie Andrews was in her 30s. There’s life I haven’t experienced yet. I’m from Vermont and I’m from mountains and I’m a little bit of a tomboy. He was wonderful incorporating parts of me in the role.
If you could ask Julie Andrews one question about this part, what would it be?
This is intense. Hm….I would ask what the most important lesson playing Maria taught her. Every role I’ve had a chance to play taught me something. Playing Maria has already taught me something. What Maria would have taught her would have opened up a new window into who Maria was and might have expanded her for me as well.
You’ve performed songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Edges and also from the new musical Elsie. What role do you want new material to play in your performing life?
I think new work is so important. Every actor should try to write. Every writer should try to act. The more you know, the better you get. There are so many valuable stories. For whatever reason, we are all on this earth—if we can share our experiences and our stories, that is our life value.
Make a prediction: what will your hours leading up to opening night be like and what will your feelings be ten minutes after the curtain comes down?
The Ahmanson considers we were still in previews, but we had an opening. Woo hoo! I like to be in a routine before a show starts. It keeps me centered and keeps me focused. Maybe after the show I’m going to try to be calm and keep myself grounded. I still want to be the same. I’m letting the moments in to take time to be proud of the work we’ve done. The show keeps growing and we’re still working on it and we’re working really hard. Opening night parties are a great time to reflect and be proud of what we’ve accomplished.