Full disclosure: I love The Sound of Music. For as long as I can remember, the show’s music has been part of my family: my mom played Maria in high school and used to sing “The Hills Are Alive” when she tucked me into bed. When I was a teenager, I borrowed the original cast recording from the library and kept it so long that I racked up a $90 late-fee. Recently, I flew home to Maryland to see my little sister in her high school production of the play, and as the von Trapp family climbed the “Alps” (the steps of the auditorium) to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” I completely lost my cool and openly wept.
You can understand, then, why I had a very strong reaction to the news that the national tour of The Sound of Music would be debuting at The Ahmanson Theatre in DTLA (previews start September 20, and the show will run through October 31 before heading out on a nationwide tour). After sitting through the well-meaning but ultimately awkward production of The Sound of Music, Live! on NBC, I’ve been harboring some trust issues with “my” show—what if the national tour changes too many details? What if the team tries to modernize it? What if it’s not what I’m used to? Three-time Tony Award winning director, Jack O’Brien, reassured me that fans of the show and movie will not only love what his team has done with this production, but that they will walk away with a deeper understanding of its time period and characters. “[The movie] took out a lot, lot of songs and secondary characters,” he said. “A lot of the bones were there—songs—but the show is a lot richer than people remember.”
For those whose only recollection of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is Julie Andrews sewing seven child-size sets of overalls out of curtains, it’s easy to forget that Maria and Captain von Trapp fall in love in 1938, right as the Nazis are infiltrating Austria. The pair is faced with an incredibly difficult and dangerous choice: to stay in their home country and cooperate or to find an escape route. “It’s a show about a world in transition, not just about the children and the nuns,” O’Brien says. “This is the moment before everything came crashing down. That’s the microscope under which I’ve put it. What did they feel like the night before it all went down? A lot of this has to do with money protecting their lifestyle. How would you react?”
While this production still includes all of our “favorite things”—a love story, sassy nuns, a fair amount of yodeling—the show won’t shy away from depicting the conflict that people in Austria were truly experiencing in 1938. The von Trapps were a real family who did live through a Nazi takeover and did escape the Third Reich’s rule (though the verdict is still out on whether they did it in matching jumpers). O’Brien wants to validate their story.
Part of achieving that historical validation meant choosing a surprising actress to play Maria. “I don’t think of Maria as the starring role,” O’Brien says. “This is an ensemble show. I wanted the world’s best babysitter. She’s not destined for greatness; she’s there to take care of seven kids.” The winner of the role, Kersten Anderson, is a sophomore at Pace University, but according to O’Brien, she has such a powerful voice that it caused him to tear up during auditions. Casting someone so young, “is a gamble,” he admitted. “But she is the real deal.”
Just as the musical reveals a world in transition, O’Brien reminded me, Maria’s character also transforms in her own way, from a directionless student to the mother of a huge family in a high pressure situation. He called Maria’s first song and the show’s title number, “The Sound of Music,” a soliloquy; a young woman’s version of “To Be or Not to Be.” This analysis made me—someone who spells theatre with an “-re” and who still owns tapes of my mother singing that song to me as a kid—think of that classic song in a new way.
After working as the Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for twenty-five years, O’Brien knows his Southern California audience and has immense respect for people coming to see The Sound of Music, whether they’ve heard the music once or one hundred times. “It’s like waking Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “I’m dealing with a beloved musical that most of us grew up on. I’m not going to deconstruct it; I’m not going to insult it…it’s been like Christmas everyday. We’re just thrilled with what we’ve got.”
It sounds like we are in good hands to me.
The Sound of Music runs September 20 to October 31 at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles.