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Jack O’Brien Uncovers a New Side of ‘The Sound of Music’

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Ashley Brown in “The Sound of Music”

Photo by Matthew Murphy

What drew three-time Tony Award® winner Jack O’Brien to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, and why is he so excited to direct the new North American tour of the show, 56 years after the original Broadway production and 50 years after the beloved movie premiered? In advance of the tour’s Los Angeles launch at the Ahmanson Theatre, O’Brien talked with Center Theatre Group teaching artist Marcos Nájera about what fascinates him about taking the helm of this iconic show—and what new discoveries are in store for audiences returning to the story of Maria and the von Trapps.

Marcos Nájera
How did it feel to be asked to direct a show with so much rich history attached to it?
Jack O’Brien

This is a fascinating assignment, especially for somebody like me at this point in my career. This show is so iconic, the movie is so beloved, and the original production was so successful and heralded that no one has really asked any questions of this piece in all these years.

What questions are you asking?

I read the play a little suspiciously, but suddenly I was stunned because the scenes were very dimensional, beautifully written, and very, very rich in detail and structure. The first thing I realized was how much this show is about discovery of relationships.

Take Liesl, the oldest Von Trapp child. Her mother died, and she went through puberty unwatched. I’m convinced that the harsh Austrian nannies who raised her were hardly sympathetic or even understanding about a young girl becoming a woman for the very first time. Liesl must have had questions. There must have been insecurities. Then we find out she is hanging out with this young boy.

Her crush, Rolf Gruber.

I think this is a naughty boy. In all the productions I’ve ever seen, he’s a perfect little Nazi. But I think this is the young man your mother didn’t want you to hang out with. This is an ambitious, probably lower-class kid who is desperate to break through or to break out. I think Rolf is very attracted to Liesl, but knows full well that he’d get into terrible trouble if he took advantage of her. And in my estimation, he already has taken advantage of every other girl in the territory. That is why Liesl is excited about him. He is very sexy. So the song “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” which he sings to Liesl, is not just a little courtship game. It’s a warning. And in the version I’m doing, Maria is aware of this.

And who is your Maria?

In the original 1959 Broadway production, Mary Martin was 46 years old when she played Maria. Julie Andrews was close to 30 in the film version. But a postulant like Maria, who is studying to become a nun, is probably high school age or a little bit older.

The Maria in our production, Kerstin Anderson, is just turning 21 years old. I didn't want a star. It’s not a star role. It’s a star-making role. And if a young girl—vulnerable, fresh, brand-new, and innocent—appears singing “The Sound of Music” at the top of the show, you’ll pay attention.

That’s the show I’m doing. I’ve lowered the ages of most of the characters by at least 15 or 20 years. The Mother Abbess, Maria’s mentor, is being played by Ashley Brown, who is in her 30s. When she sings “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to Maria, she’s singing about her own journey, about herself. That’s how she chose God. But she was attractive. And she was young. And she was vulnerable, too.

I don’t know how to say this, but: I'm looking at this show with emotion and love and sex in mind.

I don’t think sexuality comes to mind first when you think about The Sound of Music.

I don’t think anyone has shown The Sound of Music in that light before. It’s risky. And yet, we know full well that love and sex permeate every part of our lives. A story that has existed for 50 years needs beautiful music, but it also needs a heart beating inside it. And if this girl’s journey is difficult and frothed with insecurity and everybody in the piece is at-risk emotionally, you’ve got really a hell of a show.

It’s also a very political story. The movie and most of the productions of the show have really not been done in period. If you look at the movie, the clothes are very 1960s. I’m doing this in 1938, which is when it’s supposed to be. There is a real risk in the show. Characters are asking themselves, how do I get through this? Can you be friends with the Nazis? Well, we know in retrospect that no, you can’t. But when this show is happening, they don’t know that.

What do you think is the value of putting on this show now?

We tell this story over and over again because our world will always be in peril. And we take courage from the success of others and learn how to behave in difficult circumstances. The great value of The Sound of Music is that it happened. It’s not fiction. And any time you see people stand up for their rights and make a moral decision, it’s riveting.

There’s not just one reason why this has become one of the most beloved shows in American history. It’s because it literally touches everybody. Children who have never seen a stage show before see kids their own age making discoveries and responding. Parents see what it is like to lose somebody. Teachers see what it is like to instruct. And everybody sees not only how important it is to love and to be loved, but to have something worth loving. And that is ultimately your country.

This story has almost all the bases covered, and our job is to uncover them.

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