Interview 7


"Sound of Music" revival adds some tonal shifts but still aims for the heart.

Some theatrical revivals delight us by reinterpreting the material, others by providing a pleasing reprise of an old favorite. The latest reincarnation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" promises to be a bit of both.

And then there is, of course, the fact that Richard Chamberlain plays Capt. Von Trapp, the stern widower who rediscovers his own children -and the possibilities of happiness- through the new governess, Maria (Meg Tolin).

How does one explain the perennial allure of this musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, won seven Tony Awards, then went on to become a 1965 blockbuster film starring Julie Andrews, garnering five Academy Awards, including best picture?

"It has enormous charm," says Chamberlain by telephone from St. Louis, a stop on the national tour of the production that opens Wednesday at the Pantages. "The kids are charming and the songs are charming. Also, it seems to embody in some mysterious way a kind of mythical memory we have about what life was like -before the kids were toting Uzis and high on cocaine, marriages broke up after the first five minutes, and life had speeded up to this breakneck pace."

Director Susan Schulman, a Broadway veteran ("The Secret Garden"), clearly means to trigger that yearning in the audience. "I wanted to evoke a kind of innocence in musical theater, a kind of nostalgia if you will," she says on a recent visit to Los Angeles. She is quick to claim that this production is like nothing anyone has ever seen -or heard.

Although it's hardly a deconstruction -the musical is closely guarded by the estates of composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse- Schulman has made it more current, oddly enough, by paying closer attention to period details.

"This was a tough act because people think they know the show, and they really don't," she says. "They know the film, which is terrific, but it's a bit of a travelogue and oddly of its time. Instead, I was determined to make it very Austrian and to make it 1938."

Based on a true story, "The Sound of Music" follows the adventures of Maria Rainer, a perky Nonnberg Abbey postulant who finds it hard to follow the rigors of the convent. The Mother Abbess sends her away to think about her commitment to the church -and to be governess to the children of Capt. Georg Von Trapp, a retired naval officer. At the Von Trapp villa, Maria finds seven grimly regimented children, little soldiers to the captain's reign of discipline. Gradually, she loosens them up with music and playfulness, to the familiar tunes of "Do Re Mi" and "My Favorite Things." Soon the uptight captain is won over too.

Schulman and her colleagues researched Austria of the 1930s, traveling to Salzburg and visiting Nonnberg Abbey, founded more than a millennium ago. Thus the abbey set is closer to looking like the real abbey than in the original production, the costuming is more authentic, and the entire score was reorchestrated to sound more Salzburg-like -which means ample use of tubas, zithers, guitars and folk instruments.

They restored two songs cut from the movie -"How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It"- and added two songs from the movie that were not in the original stage musical -"I Have Confidence," which Maria sings to pump herself up as she wends from the abbey to her new life at the Von Trapp villa, and "Something Good," a tender duet between the captain and Maria as they find themselves falling in love.

Schulman has also made the political backdrop to the story more obvious than in the original production. Toward the end of the show, Nazi banners and flags proliferate onstage, signaling the German annexation of Austria in 1938 -something the captain deplores and the family must eventually flee.

Chamberlain may not have been seen as a singer during his climb to fame as TV's "Dr. Kildare" in the 1960s, but he did record several albums at that time. When the show ended after five years, he eagerly tried other roles and appeared in a short-lived 1966 musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Mary Tyler Moore. (It closed while in previews.) Since then he has worked steadily on stage and screen, featured as the tormented Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell's "The Music Lovers" and the elegant Aramis in three Richard Lester films based on Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." In the 1980s he had leading roles in such television blockbusters as "Shogun" (1980) and "The Thorn Birds" (1983).

In 1993, Chamberlain appeared as Henry Higgins in a well-received Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady," also opposite Tolin, and which also went on the road. "Oh, I always knew he could sing," says Schulman. In fact, Chamberlain was the first choice for the captain role when "Music" was being prepared for Broadway in 1998. At the time he was unavailable, so Michael Siberry filled the role. When Siberry, an Australian, had to leave the production after eight months, the producers asked Chamberlain again.

At first he was doubtful, but he made a trip to New York to check out the production. He found that he liked it and thought, why not?

"These days I live in Hawaii, where nothing ever happens -which I like," he says. "Whereas once in a while you want to go someplace where everything happens -and that's New York City!" By taking the "smaller role" of the captain, he thought he would have time and energy left over to enjoy the city.

Schulman was delighted that Chamberlain accepted. "In musicals, there's not a lot of time for character development, so I was really looking for a fine actor," she says. "I also needed someone who brought personal integrity to the role. He has to fulfill an expectation: People expect a captain in the Austrian navy to have a certain bearing. You also need the warmth to interact with children."

Although Chamberlain found the role under-written, Schulman told him the secret: to play each moment with total commitment.

"I've discovered that that's true," the actor says. "The audience will come with you on these very swift journeys, but you really have to be on your toes to do it right every night." As a result, he has had little energy left after hours and has been living, as he says, like a monk.

But does performing the same show up to eight times a week become a grind? "I tell you what keeps it alive for us -the audiences love the show!" he exclaims. Furthermore, he says he's still learning about the captain and how to play him better each time.

Reviews of the show, which went on the road in August, have been laudatory. The Boston Phoenix praised the production for its "light, joyous tone, refreshingly edged with a little eye rolling, rather than going treacly." The Miami Herald found that Chamberlain was "still both slender and striking, and sings in a baritone suited to wooing." Schulman has found theatergoers of all ages enthralled by the production. "Audiences want to be moved," she says. "That's the bottom line in storytelling."

2000 Scarlet Cheng