The Story Behind The Sound of Music’s Revival

Friday, August 5, 2016.

I confess, a revival of “The Sound of Music” never really appeared on my life's radar. How could it? It was, so far as I was concerned, an hermetically sealed icon — both as the musical that enshrined Mary Martin’s last Tony, and the film that made a whirling Julie Andrews into an immortal logo. Both the successful musical, beloved by millions, and the great film, adored by even more, would seem hardly fodder for any director whose contributions would surely be overwhelmed by the expectations of fiercely devoted fans of both.

But by happenstance, I was invited along for a cultural exchange with Russia some six or so years ago, and during which I was invited to witness the dress rehearsal for the first all-Russian speaking production of our classic. Would I be so gracious as to attend? Of course I would! There, stunned into silence facing a fairly abstract production, I watched an untried young soprano who shared the leading role go through the paces of her put-in rehearsal. When she related to the children, or when she faced her remarkably young and vigorous Captain Von Trapp, I found unexpected tears of joy and happiness running down my face. What? Could it be? Was “The Sound of Music” really reaching me in a personal and affecting way? What on Earth was I to do with this nearly embarrassing reaction?

The result was nothing for the next few years. But eventually I was approached by the Rodgers & Hammerstein protectors and the current producing team of Networks if I might be interested. I had, before I could fairly answer, only one issue: might I have just a look at the script first to see if there might be something I could offer?

When I read the deeply intelligent and carefully crafted words of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, it felt as it some lost vault was opening up. One image after another confronted me… This was meant to be set in 1938, a barely caught breath before the disaster that unfolded as World War II. On the brink of this catastrophe, beautifully articulated characters danced, as if on the edge of an unknown precipice, bargaining for their lives, playing our their personal journeys, scarcely aware that in the next day or two, their world, and ours, would change forever. I found the drama breathtaking and the characters dimensional. Curiously enough, the dilemma of a girl barely out of her teens and thrust into the midst of a very sophisticated social situation was something I never had seen or thought about in any previous production I knew.

Assembling my stalwart little team of like adventurers, I chose well: Gifted veteran Douglas Schmidt, a 40-year collaborator of mine for the scenery; the great Jane Greenwood for the clothes; and the magical Natasha Katz for the poetry of light. I also included two other amazing collaborators: choreographer Danny Mefford, who had done such a spectacular job with my production of “Much Ado About Nothing” in Central Park a year before, and Andy Einhorn, a musical director so intimately familiar with all the versions of this great musical that he had only to see a transition to be able to bring three of four choices to the table, each of them perfect in intention and tone.

There was one other influence to be explored. Each time a production was assembled for this show, a star had been engaged to play the central role of Maria. I couldn’t believe in that. To see Mary Martin, or Julie Andrews, or even someone like Carrie Underwood as Maria was to see a familiarly recognizable performer take on the role. Like Lady Gaga, all one could do would be to hear her, and judge her against that former illustrious group. No, we needed someone you’ve never seen before stand on that Alp and open her mouth for not only her first experience, but ours as well - the famous “illusion of the first time!” With young, fresh Kerstin Anderson I found my Maria. The world’s best, most enthusiastic babysitter loped into the audition room, opened her mouth to sing and real tears were in my eyes.

It is our fervent hope you will have a similar reaction embracing this brand-new approach to one of our most beloved works. It stands ready for your scrutiny as well as for your love. The hills are truly alive once more!

Jack O’Brien, director

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