Interview 8


"Sound of Music" star still has a legion of lovesick fans.

He's 65 now, an age when most men of his income and professional stature are busy polishing their golf swings or bouncing their grandkids on wobbly knees.

But what's a sexagenarian sex symbol to do? Richard Chamberlain can't help it if some middle-age women regress to giggling girlhood whenever he steps on stage or screen, as he'll do beginning Tuesday in a Broadway-nurtured revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III's "The Sound of Music" at Seattle's Paramount Theatre.

At 65, Richard Chamberlain is one of America's most bankable middle-age heartthrobs. His fan mail is still "very sweet."

Directed by Susan H. Schulman, the production has been hailed by critics as an inspired restaging of the romantic musical based on the true story of a feisty Austrian postulant, Maria Rainer, who brings out the kinder, gentler side of an authoritarian Navy captain.

For many, however, the real draw won't be the story or the music, but Chamberlain, the absurdly well-preserved leading man who has been eliciting sighs ever since he was cast as TV's Dr. Kildare nearly 40 years ago. His female admirers are still out there and, to judge by the fan mail he receives, scarcely less devoted than before.

"Mostly they say they love the show and they were very touched by it and they loved 'The Thorn Birds,'" says Chamberlain, speaking by phone. "They're very sweet letters."

"The Thorn Birds" was the 1983 TV mini-series based on Colleen McCullough's best seller in which Chamberlain played the dashing, if spiritually anguished, Father Ralph de Bricassart. It was one of several roles, along with "Shogun" and the title part in "Wallenberg," that confirmed Chamberlain as the champ of the TV miniseries, as well as one of America's most bankable middle-age heartthrobs.

After four decades in show biz, Chamberlain is able to wear those credentials comfortably, minus any self-consciousness.

Polished, yet candid and opinionated, the actor is quick to attribute "The Sound of Music's" enduring appeal to its squeaky-clean '60s sensibility and PG-13 subject matter -no matter that it takes place during the Nazis' annexation of Austria.

"What I know is the audiences adore the show, they just love the show, and then people say, 'What do they love about the show,' and it's very hard to say apart from its obvious fun and gaiety and the children and all that," Chamberlain says.

"It seems to me that it reminds us of a vision of a life that we all had, when love and marriages lasted forever, when kids didn't carry weapons to school and probably weren't addicted to heroin. Now, times were dark; the Nazis were on the march. But there was something about the way people were. I do think it's this memory of a simpler time." Whether due to nostalgia or simply a slew of hummable tunes like "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," the show has been a hit from 16th November 1959, when it opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and went on to run for 1,443 performances. That original production won seven Tony Awards, best musical among them, before spawning the Oscar-winning 1965 film version, the top-grossing movie musical of all time.

While other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows such as "Carousel" and "Oklahoma!" lately have received revisionist remountings -mostly at the hands of British directors- "The Sound of Music" has been left largely untouched. This production reportedly seeks to add some faux-Alpine flavor to the score by augmenting the orchestra's brass section. It also restores two songs from the Broadway version that were cut from the film, "How Can Love Survive?" and "There's No Way to Stop It," while including two songs from the film, "I Have Confidence" and the love duet "Something Good."

But for the most part the production leaves the original show intact. Which is fine with Chamberlain.

"I think it's unrevisable," he says. "I think they hit it just right ... and I can't imagine it being done much differently."

Fair enough, but how does that affect his playing of Capt. Georg Von Trapp, a character initially so wooden that he seems to be suffering from dry rot?

"Well, he starts out that way for sure," Chamberlain says, "that's part of the fun of playing him, but then he loosens up a lot, a lot happens to him, a lot more than I realized before I started playing him. Things happen very fast in musicals and they're written in a kind of shorthand, which is what makes them very difficult to play."

It's evident from the conversation how thoroughly Chamberlain has considered his character, including the source of his attraction to "The Sound of Music's" Other Woman, the captain's fiancée, Elsa Schrader.

"Oh, she's gorgeous for one thing, and I think they have a sexual relationship that's pretty good," Chamberlain ventures. "She's a very, very attractive woman and I think if Maria hadn't come along they would've gotten married and would've had a pretty good marriage."

Chamberlain, a resident of Hawaii for many years, is equally animated in discussing his young co-star, Meg Tolin, who previously played Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in the 1993 revival of "My Fair Lady."

"We're great friends and she's very, very talented." And is the age difference between them an issue in the production? "Well, it's not an issue for me!" he says, laughing. "I feel very young doing this thing!"

© 2000 Reed Johnson