Everybody knows “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” and Julie Andrews spinning happily in an Alpine meadow, but that can be “a blessing and a curse” to those putting on live productions of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
“Everybody knows and loves it, but they think of only the movie version, which is iconic and fantastic. The stage version is a very different beast,” said Andy Einhorn, music supervisor of the 50th Anniversary production of “The Sound of Music.”
This new production of “The Sound of Music” which plays May 10-22 at the Fisher Theater, is directed by three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien and features homegrown talent Teri Hansen of Birmingham, playing the Baroness Elsa von Schraeder.
“It’s more political,” Einhorn said. “I like to refrain from the word ‘darker,’ but it’s more realistic about what was going on at the time in Nazi Austria in 1938 and 1939. There’s no denying what was coming.”
“What Jack (O’Brien), and I hope, the rest of us have done successfully is allow audiences to come in with the idea that they know this piece, they know and love the music, but they’ll see it in a fresh way,” Einhorn said. “We reimagine what makes the show so utterly special.”
On Broadway, “The Sound of Music,” starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, premiered in November 1959. The 1965 movie version featured Andrews as the would-be nun Maria, and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp.
The music supervisor was calling from the road, mourning about how several of the children appearing in the musical, playing members of the Von Trapp family, were leaving the cast.
While he was feeling sentimental about it, it’s a good thing, he admits. “It’s the blessing of a production running for a while. You have a period where people start leaving.”
As the romantic story plays out, there is a parallel, grimmer storyline, as the Nazis try to force Captain von Trapp to cooperate. The story was fictionalized somewhat from the true story of Maria and Georg von Trapp.The narrative, set in the late 1930’s, follows the restless young novitiate Maria, as she leaves the convent to become a governess to the large, motherless von Trapp family in Nazi-occupied Austria. She brings music to the bereft von Trapp children, and in the process helps their father, the austere Captain, heal his relationship with his offspring.
The “Sound of Music” was the last collaboration in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s long, storied career, as Oscar Hammerstein II died soon after writing “Edelweiss,” one of the musical’s most beloved songs.
In the 1960s, “Sound of Music” numbers including “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “I am 16 Going on 17” and the title song became part of the American songbook. The songs have been interpreted by everyone from Barbra Streisand to John Coltrane, and sung in practically every school in the country.
The composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were arguably at the creative peak of their partnership when they composed the musical. Some of the simplest songs are actually very intricately crafted, Einhorn points out.
“What made Rodgers & Hammerstein so special, is what might seem mundane or ordinary done by a more generic writer — well, there’s always a sparkle to their work,” Einhorn said.
As an example, he points out the scene just after the Captain has decided that governess Maria must leave the family and go back to the nuns. Everybody is sad, but he is adamant — until he hears what Maria has taught the children.
“The children come in and sing to their father, the Captain. It forces him to soften. After that, he says to Maria, ‘You’re right, I didn’t know my own children. Please don’t leave, you must stay with them.’ It opens up his eyes. They sing together, a little bit of ‘The Sound of Music.’ As he leaves, she starts singing a bit of ‘Do-Re-Mi.’
“What’s fascinating is, you realize that Rodgers and Hammerstein used their songs to also sing a subtext. Maria singing the song she introduced the children to, but the subtext is different with the Captain. I can’t watch the show without crying at that moment. It’s not overtly stated, but you pick it up — the way she introduced the children to music is what she just did to the Captain, in 16 bars of music. I’m a mess every time I see that.”
Timeless story, music
What makes the music so timeless?
“There’s not any of us who can’t hear ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ without it speaking to the emotional core of our being. It touches us,” Einhorn said.
“My Favorite Things” comes up in a different place in the musical than it does in the film. In the movie, Maria sings it to calm the children during a storm. In the musical, it is sung between the Mother Abbess and Maria.
“That moment is the lynchpin of why this production is so special,” Einhorn noted. “When they sing ‘My Favorite Things,’ you see two women, one who is just finding her way through life, and the other reminiscing about her own choices.”
One reason “The Sound of Music” is buzzworthy to younger audiences is the massively popular 2013 NBC production, “Sound of Music Live,” featuring Carrie Underwood, which drew the largest non-sports TV audience since the “Frasier” series finale in 2004.
Just last year, Lady Gaga drew praise when she deployed her Juilliard-trained chops to sing a “Sound of Music” medley to honor Julie Andrews at the Oscars.
Broadway veterans are sanguine about those events. “I think the TV performance was great,” said Einhorn. “No matter whether it was a perfect artistic success that 21 million people watched a musical and were reintroduced to a property in this day and age, when we have social media and a lack of attention span, speaks volumes to the piece.”
Hansen, a Birmingham Seaholm and Central Michigan graduate who plays Baroness Schraeder, Captain von Trapp’s ill-fated fiancée, agrees. “The most notable accomplishment of that (NBC) television production was, it was the first one since ‘Peter Pan’ all those years ago. So yeah, Lady Gaga brought attention to it, but it was more Carrie Underwood on NBC, in combination with the 50th anniversary of the film.
“We have this timeless story, this timeless music that people love and can’t get enough of,” Hansen added. “I know they will love this new production. It’s like nothing they’ve ever seen. There’s an audible gasp when the curtain goes up, the staging is so beautiful.”
The Sound of Music, 50th
Anniversary Celebration Tour
Featuring music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Suggested by “The Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp.
Directed by Jack O’Brien.
Starring: Kerstin Anderson (Maria Rainer), Ben Davis (Captain Georg von Trapp), Melody Betts (Mother Abbess), Merwin Foard (Max Detweiller), Teri Hansen (Baroness Elsa von Schraeder).
Fisher Theater, 3011 W. Grand, Detroit. (313) 872-1000
8 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.
2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Tickets: Charge by phone via TicketMaster at (800) 982-2787. Or go to broadwayindetroit.com