Arts Preview:  How do you solve a problem like updating ‘Sound of Music’? Director is on the case

Ben Davis and Kerstin Anderson rehearse "The Sound of Music" on Sept. 3, 2015.

Ben Davis and Kerstin Anderson rehearse “The Sound of Music” on Sept. 3, 2015.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Maria von Trapp and the nuns helping her into her wedding dress were finding it difficult to execute a tricky maneuver. A man sitting nearby had some advice.

“You always turn with the train, not against it,” said Jack O’Brien, the multiple Tony winner and director of the new revival of “The Sound of Music” in which Maria does battle with her voluminous bridal gown.

Some on his staff ribbed him for his unlikely expertise. “I’ve had a lot of experience with material,” O’Brien said.


O’Brien, 76, has indeed in his nearly half-century career. The longtime artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre has also won three Tony Awards for directing, for pieces as diverse as “Hairspray,” “Henry IV” and “The Coast of Utopia.” (Less auspiciously, he was involved in short-lived stagings of “The Selling of the President” and “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”)

But O’Brien takes on a uniquely daunting challenge with a touring production of “The Sound of Music,” for which he, his blue-chip staff and that unwieldy gown were in rehearsal recently at a Midtown studio.

FULL COVERAGE: Fall arts guide 2015

As with both the 1959 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin and the classic 1965 film with Julie Andrews, “The Sound of Music”--about the novice nun Maria who arrives at the home of widower Capt. Georg von Trapp in Nazi-era Austria-- is well-known and much-beloved.

So O’Brien and the Rodgers & Hammerstein executor RNH are looking to pull off a tricky feat: preserve what people already like while challenging them to think of the show anew.

Beginning Sept. 20, when “Sound of Music” kicks off its tour with a six-week run at the Ahmanson Theatre, audiences will get to see just how well they’ve struck that balance.


“People are so familiar with the show that I think they’re perfectly happy to let it go by without asking any questions,” O’Brien said during a rehearsal break. “There’s a passivity to how we experience ‘The Sound of Music.’ I want to take the text and question it. How many times do we earn the lyric? How many times do we earn the score?”

He added, “Without violating anyone’s expectations and without rewriting anything, there’s a lot of unexplored territory here.”

The hills are alive with the wind of change.

Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals have a certain durability, regularly recurring on Broadway even 65 or 70 years after they were first staged. A new version of “The King and I” last spring was praised for its lavish 21st century production values and won actress Kelli O’Hara her first Tony Award.

Some miles north, an “Oklahoma!” revival drew less spectacular but still solid reviews when it opened at Bard College’s SummerScape in July. “Cinderella” remains a touring force; a version that played on Broadway as “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” will hit cities in Minnesota, Kentucky, Michigan and Massachusetts before the month is out.

“The Sound of Music” would seem the most enduring of the bunch, boosted by its popularity with schools and community theater groups, not to mention persistent airings of the movie during the holidays. A tribute by Lady Gaga and Andrews at this year’s Oscars, along with a reprisal in movie theaters this spring, hasn’t hurt.

But that ubiquity can be misleading. The show has returned to Broadway only once, 17 years ago. (Both “King And I” and “Oklahoma!” have had multiple Broadway revivals.)


O’Brien and his team were reluctant to give away too many of the changes they’re planning, though they did hint at a more full-blooded romance between the Captain and Maria. The notion was borne out in rehearsal by a set of kisses between theater veteran Ben Davis and newcomer Kerstin Anderson so passionate that they elicited vocal reactions from others in the company.

Other likely adjustments:

— A captain who is less harsh and one-dimensional as the show opens; instead, his plight as a grieving and overwhelmed widower will be emphasized. “We want you to understand him a little more,” Davis said.

— More nuanced character development among the Von Trapp children. When Liesl and love interest Rolf fall for each other via the Act 1 number “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” for instance, it can be scrutinized for more complex elements.

“It reads less like a simple love song and more a young woman discovering her sensuality and all that suggests. We wanted the physical vocabulary to reflect that,” said Danny Mefford, the show’s choreographer, who knows a little about female coming-of-age with his recent work on best musical winner “Fun Home.”

— An emphasis on politics. O’Brien said he believes that the sense of World War II dread hasn’t always been underlined as much it could. “I opened the script and it said ‘1938,’ and I really didn’t remember that being an operative year. The movie, too, was very ‘60s. Maybe the occasional storm trooper passed through, but we forget this is literally weeks before the wheels came off.”

— The tweaking of at least one iconic scene: Maria spinning on the hilltop. No one would say exactly how it would change, but expect the twirling to take a different form.


— A more fresh-faced Maria. Perhaps the most significant of the changes. O’Brien chose the 20-year-old Anderson — she has never had a professional role — from among dozens of more seasoned competitors. He liked her precisely because she wasn’t a star. “If it was Carrie Underwood, you’d think ‘there she is doing something bad, or there she is doing something great,’ but I don’t know that you’d really be seeing Maria.”

Anderson says few have been as surprised by the choice as she has been.

“It’s been crazy. I remember being at dinner when I got the news and I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’” she recalled. “And there were all these connections. I’m from Vermont and [the real-life Maria] came to Stowe, about 45 minutes from where I grew up.”

Until a few months ago, Anderson was a sophomore at Pace University in New York. She had just recently been signed by the veteran manager Jeff Berger, who saw both presence and an ability to hit the high notes in productions like a school staging of “The Light in the Piazza.” The announcement was such a surprise it sent on a hunt to track down YouTube clips under the headline “Who Is the Sound of Music Tour Star Kerstin Anderson?”

The actress has, she added somewhat bashfully, never been to Los Angeles.

Anderson said she has tried to channel her newbie status in creative directions. “Being young and new to all of this I hope helps me think and act the way Maria did when she first arrived to the Von Trapps — not literally but subconsciously.”

It’s worth noting that Anderson is taking the leap forward in a year when Alex Sharp won an acting Tony for his first professional role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”--an event that came to mind for Anderson when, walking home from a restaurant after receiving word she’d been hired, passed Sharp on the street. “It was like some weird karma going on,” she said.

The casting of Anderson, O’Brien points out, is actually more faithful to the story. The real-life Maria was barely 20 when the events of the show took place. But O’Brien notes that the two actresses best known for playing her were notably older than that: Andrews was 29 and Martin was 46.


How the director came on to the project is its own unlikely story. On a trip to Moscow, O’Brien went on a lark to see an abstract-minded revival of the show. Not all of it worked, but the unapologetic lack of reverence for the original opened his eyes to possibilities.

Meanwhile, RNH President and Executive Director Ted Chapin was contemplating a touring production of “Sound of Music,” prompted by regional theaters saying there was demand for it. When Chapin heard of O’Brien’s interest, a plan was hatched — rather than battle it out in a competitive Broadway, why not take an A-list version on the road?

That hybrid model, he said, has required finessing.

“I’m kind of the man in-between,” Chapin said with a laugh as he watched rehearsal last week. “I’ve had to convince Jack and some of the others to come down a little and maybe some of the theaters to step up a little,” he said, alluding both to budgets and creative choices.

Most critically for many fans is the question of emotion — namely, how much of the schmaltz will O’Brien trim? The pull of tradition is strong. And in any event, isn’t the unabashed sentimentality what makes “The Sound of Music” so popular in the first place?

Those involved say there is a happy medium.

“I liken it to a new jazz singer playing something from the classic songbook,” said actor Davis.”You want to hear their interpretation, but you want to hear the melody underneath. And that’s what I think Jack has done.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT