THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF MUSIC
by Roger Pines
How many thousands of parents and teachers have taught young children “Do-Re-Mi”? How many important occasions have been made more uplifting by the singing of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”? Those songs, and so many others, make The Sound of Music a treasure of American musical theater. So does Maria, the spunky, upbeat heroine. Next spring you’ll find Maria, Captain von Trapp, the Mother Abbess, and seven adorable children entrancing Lyric Opera audiences when this best-loved of all musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is presented as part of Lyric Opera’s ongoing American Musical Theater Initiative.
Besides its unforgettable leading lady, the greatest asset of The Sound of Music is its glorious score. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have really good songs in a musical, you’re not going to be popular,” asserts Ted Chapin, president and executive director of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, the organization governing productions of the pair’s shows worldwide. “These are songs that people know. Our top three songs in the entire R&H catalogue are from The Sound of Music. ‘My Favorite Things’ is first–John Coltrane made it a jazz standard. It’s one of those songs that cuts across all genres of music. Then come ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and the title song. ‘Edelweiss’ is up there, too–everyone assumes it’s an Austrian folk song, but it’s not!”
Chapin is astonished by the youthful quality that imbues so much of the score: “Songs like ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ are legitimately about children, youth, learning. Those two men in their sixties tapped into their creativity to write these songs in a truly genuine way.”
Bert Fink, senior vice-president/Europe at Rodgers & Hammerstein, explains how the show came to be: “Paramount Pictures had bought the rights to a German docudrama called Die Trapp Familie,” about the real-life Austrian family singing group who had fled Europe for America during the late 1930s. “They asked theater and movie director Vincent J. Donehue to film an English-language remake, allegedly with Audrey Hepburn as Maria. Instead, as he viewed the film, Donehue thought it would make better Broadway play than a film, and he thought of his friend Mary Martin in the leading role. The playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were brought in to write the play – they only converted it to a musical’s libretto once Rodgers and Hammerstein joined the project.”
When Rodgers and Hammerstein were asked to contribute some songs for the show, they quickly realized the story would be better served by an entirely original score. Their colleagues agreed, and the result was one of the big hits of the 1959-60 Broadway season. Sadly, the following summer Hammerstein’s death ended the most successful of all musical-theater partnerships. But The Sound of Music is inextinguishable; with the 1965 film (by every measure the most successful movie musical ever made) and countless stage productions, the entire world has fallen in love with the show.
It’s 1938 and we’re at an abbey in Salzburg, Austria, where the ebullient young Maria Rainer is preparing to become a nun. The Mother Abbess tests the strength of Maria’s vocation by sending her to be governess to the seven children of a widowed naval captain, Georg von Trapp. Maria quickly earns the children’s devotion and teaches them to sing.
Although engaged to the wealthy Baroness Elsa Schraeder, the captain falls in love with Maria and she with him. Uncertain and confused, she retreats to the abbey, but the Mother Abbess persuades her to return to the von Trapps. Elsa breaks off the engagement, leaving the captain free to marry Maria. While the newlyweds honeymoon, impresario Max Detweiler enters the children in a prestigious musical competition. Upon returning to an Austria now annexed by the Third Reich, the captain is ordered to accept a commission in the German navy. He and Maria perform with the children at the competition, but during the judges’ deliberation (before the von Trapps are awarded first prize), the family flees to the abbey to hide. After the Nazis fail to find them, they embark on the journey that will take them over the mountains to Switzerland – and freedom.
In addition to productions in theaters everywhere, The Sound of Music has been presented by numerous opera companies. That’s no surprise; as with all R&H shows, these songs demand the highest musical standards, but beyond that, the show’s appeal communicates something special to every audience. “It presents a dysfunctional family that pulls together in a positive way,” Chapin says, “and that’s always a good story. Whether you’re the age of Gretl [the youngest von Trapp child] or the captain, there’s probably something familiar to you in this show.” It must be emphasized that The Sound of Music is not all “raindrops on roses –there’s depth and seriousness, too. Certainly during the 1950s “it was the first musical that dealt with the Nazi period in any way,” comments Chapin. “To do a musical with this as the overview was pretty bold.”
Marc Bruni, the gifted young director who debuts at Lyric with this new production, agrees with Chapin. He cites the captain, “truly standing against his entire country. Austria was not resistant to the Anschluss so, as a principled person with a great sense of nationalism, he was very much a loner in the Austria of that time.” Audiences are so taken with Maria and the children that “they lose track of this emotional center. There’s a deeply political piece inside a sweet love story.”
One of today’s most admired sopranos, Christine Brewer, who returns to Lyric as the Mother Abbess, finds the show compelling, above all, “because of this family being so united through music.” Brewer played her role once before, when still a teenager, and years later directed the show while working as a high-school music teacher. Returning to the Mother Abbess today, “I can bring my own life into it,” says Brewer, “from being a mother, being a teacher, working with children and young people. The Mother Abbess’s leadership comes from a place of love. She’s able to look at the bigger picture and relate to Maria in a motherly way.”
The Mother Abbess’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the thrilling conclusion of Act One, starts low in the voice, moving upward very gradually. “I love it,” declares Brewer, “because that song is like climbing a mountain. It’s also so positive: life is tough and you just have to forge ahead, take up those challenges and climb every mountain. I think it’s a good metaphor for what we all have to do in life, and singing it is exhilarating.”
Playing the role of Baroness Schraeder will be a Lyric favorite, soprano Elizabeth Futral. (The other principals will be announced at a later date.) Bruni’s hope is for this cast to include “people from the Broadway/musical-theater world melded with people from opera, enhancing the piece in appropriate ways.” The director is also excited that Lyric’s production will present “a chorus able to do justice to the nuns’ music, written in a very operatic style. That’s another strength of the piece in an opera-house context. And then there’s the orchestra! Because of the way finances work with musicals, it’s difficult to justify as big an orchestra as Lyric is able to provide. To hear this music with a glorious large orchestra is something you cannot hear anywhere else.” As with Oklahoma!, 37 Lyric Orchestra musicians will perform.
Director of various shows for New York’s highly prestigious “Encores!” series and four productions for the Muny in St. Louis, Bruni has also associatedirected more than ten Broadway hits. He’s planning a Sound of Music that will “take advantage of the scale of Lyric’s space. We want, for example, to make sure the Alps are omnipresent. Because this is such a familiar piece, we’re figuring out a way to create other elements that you haven’t seen before.” Bruni notes that the original production was constructed for 1950s stage mechanics. A number of short scenes–done in front of a drop–were there simply to cover changes of costumes and sets. Bruni and his internationally celebrated designer, Michael Yeargan, will go for what the director describes as “a more fluid look.”
Whether in the 19 musical numbers or the extensive spoken dialogue, Bruni hopes to reveal “the honesty of what’s actually happening. I’ve seen many productions of this show where characters aren’t treated three-dimensionally, with a level of artifice about the whole thing. I want to cut to the central humanity of the characters and their problems.” Bruni directed The Sound of Music at St. Louis’s Muny Theatre–a large, outdoor space–but “some of the moments in the show that land the biggest are a single person singing a song onstage with nothing else. You can feel the entire audience leaning in. We have the same opportunity at Lyric. Despite the grand scale of everything, there’s a great humanity to each character and each song that allows people to lean forward and experience them as if for the first time.”