Chamberlain Faces the "Music."
The long-ago Dr. Kildare finds the part of Captain von Trapp fascinating.
When actor Richard Chamberlain, 65, first considered the role of the severe, militaristic Captain Georg von Trapp in the Broadway revival of "The Sound of Music,'' he wasn't entirely sure he even wanted it.
"I thought he was just OK as a character, but it would be a kind of secondary support role for me,'' said the long-ago Dr. Kildare of television fame and celebrated star of the "Shogun'' and "Thornbirds'' TV miniseries.
"But now I'm so fascinated with him that I just love playing the captain every night,'' Chamberlain said last week from Seattle, where "The Sound of Music'' was being performed before heading to San Francisco this week. The show opens as a Best of Broadway offering on Tuesday at the Golden Gate Theatre. It runs through May 14.
Chamberlain has a somewhat stormy history on Broadway. Years ago, he starred in a musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's'' with Mary Tyler Moore, and the show flopped big time. When he returned in the 1990s to star in a revival of "My Fair Lady,'' he was conspicuously not nominated for a Tony in spite of solid reviews. The flimsy reason advanced was that voters were not invited in time to cast their ballots.
When "The Sound of Music'' was revived two years ago, it first starred Michael Siberry in the Captain von Trapp role. The show opened to mixed reviews. But when Chamberlain stepped in -playing opposite a very young former understudy, 19-year-old Laura Benanti in the role of novice nun Maria- the production seemed to take on a whole new life at the Martin Beck Theatre in Manhattan.
With some staging tweaks made by director Susan H. Schulman, the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II classic of 1959 was suddenly among the brightest of Broadway lights. Chamberlain's face was prominent on theatre posters and ads, and he got a lot of respect for not trying to hide his years, but instead playing von Trapp as a real man showing the wear and tear of life, one weighted by intense grief over the loss of his wife.
"It has become a great big part, and I love it,'' Chamberlain said. "I'm fascinated because he is a man who's had a tough time in life and makes big changes. Actors thrive on characters who change, who do the unexpected.''
The 6-foot-1 Chamberlain, still devilishly handsome, with a bearing that suggests a military background (he served as an Army sergeant in Korea before he won the "Dr. Kildare'' starring role in 1961), has gotten enthusiastic reviews. In the current 10-city tour he performs opposite Broadway sensation Meg Tolin as Maria. Their age difference has caused little discussion, but when teenage Benanti had the Maria part, the 46-year span was much talked about in the media, and among the theatre crowd.
"I think it works better now, even though Laura (Benanti) had a tremendous maturity and is truly gifted,'' Chamberlain said. "Meg is in her early 30s, so there isn't the shock that had some people talking.''
Tolin also co-starred with Chamberlain in the "My Fair Lady'' revival.
Beverly Hills born and bred ("but south of Wilshire''), Chamberlain said he never found any acting part easy, but the role of Captain von Trapp is a particular challenge because "musicals are written in a kind of shorthand, and the whole idea is to get on to the musical numbers, even though it means giving the character an underwritten, underdeveloped feel,'' he said. "So for me, I want that character to be vital, and it means playing every moment with total conviction.''
The songs are secondary to von Trapp's character. But Chamberlain, whose voice is deep and resonant, says there's enough singing -in tunes like "Edelweiss,'' the duet with Maria "Something Good'' and a reprise of "The Sound of Music''- that he devotes hours daily to vocal exercises.
It's part of a touring regimen -there are eight shows a week- that he says forces him to live a "monastic existence'' on the road. He doesn't drink and he doesn't party, but he would often like nothing better than to kick up his heels with fellow cast members after a show.
"It's tiring to travel,'' he said. "But I'm not complaining. I love going to different cities. In fact, I love just being in cities from time to time.''
When he's not working, Chamberlain stays away from cities. He lives in a cottage in rural Oahu, Hawaii, where his lifestyle is "far away from anything urban, and from anything tourist.''
It's also far away from show business, which is just the ticket for a man with celebrity status, hounded by autograph seekers after every performance of "The Sound of Music'' and almost always noticed when he goes to restaurants and other public places.
"Where I live in Hawaii, nobody knows who I am or what I do. They could care less. My house is in what some people think of as a slightly disreputable place, because there are no Caucasians and no tourists around there,'' he said.
I'm a very normal, easygoing person, and life is much more simple in Hawaii. The big event of the day is often just watching the sunset with a beer in one hand and chips in the other, and the dog curled up at my feet.''
Since moving to the island almost a decade ago, Chamberlain, a bachelor, got reacquainted with his life as a painter. He was an art major at Pomona College, but for many years had forsaken his brushes to pursue acting.
Art, he said, always fed his fantasies.
"I was a terrible student in school,'' he said. "I deeply resented from about the age of 5 having to go to school and surrender my freedom. I preferred the pursuit of daydreams.''
The young Chamberlain said he traveled a "universe of imagined sights'' and relied on his artistic talent for expression. In college, he discovered theatre.
"At 20 I was shy and completely withdrawn,'' he said. "Acting was extremely attractive because it was a way of living the lives of characters who were a lot more interesting than me. They did things, they went places and they took me out of myself.''
Though he lives far away from the world of show business, Chamberlain is forthright in admitting that being a celebrity is a mixed blessing.
Celebrity is a major theme in a play Chamberlain will star in this summer at the Berkshire Theatre in Massachusetts. "The Shadow of Greatness,'' by first-time playwright Gary Socol, is "about the dubious value of worshiping celebrity,'' Chamberlain said.
"I love being anonymous most of the time,'' he said with a laugh. "But I can't deny that if I spend time in a big city and absolutely nobody, but nobody, notices me, it's a bit depressing. I'd miss celebrity if it was completely gone. For one thing, it makes it a lot easier to get a table in a restaurant. And for another, I can't imagine, after so long being in this business, what it is like to be completely anonymous."
"What you don't want to do is misuse whatever it is that makes you known to the public. I always try to greet people, to say hello. And then I just go my way like anybody else.''
Chamberlain said that actors have a responsibility to respect the fact that it is usually the characters they play that stick in people's minds, and not the actor himself.
"With 'The Sound of Music' there is a great power, a mysterious power, in the way the show brings back memories to people for what they feel was a sweeter time, when kids weren't into drugs, weren't taking guns to school, and planes weren't being hijacked."
"The show is not all sweetness -after all, the Nazis were on the way. But the memories people have of it are very sweet. We've tried to accentuate things that don't make the story quite so saccharine, but it's just a fact that people respond to the tremendous feeling of hope.''
Chamberlain said he is aware of the revival that the 1965 film version of "The Sound of Music,'' starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, has enjoyed in London. There, audiences have taken a campy attitude, showing up in costumes and singing along.
"I read about that,'' he said. "It sounds just hilarious and wonderful, and to be quite honest I'm very tempted to get on a plane some night and just go do that.''
© 2000 Peter Stack