Articles and Reviews
The Sound of Music looks, feels and sounds better than it has in
decades at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Richard Chamberlain
is the perfect Capt. Von Trapp, a celebrity who doesn't star but acts,
and defers to his spunky leading lady, Meg Tolin.
© 2000 Jack Zink
Richard Chamberlain Traps New Fans and Old in Broadway’s The Sound of Music
Richard Chamberlain is relaxing in his rented apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side when a commotion breaks out in the hall. He peeks out the front door just in time to glimpse a couple of police officers handcuffing his next-door neighbor and hauling him away. “My God,” he bellows. “I hope no shots come zinging through the door!”
But minutes later, the actor seems almost pleased by the hint of danger. Chamberlain, who has been starring since March as Captain von Trapp in the Broadway revival of
The Sound of Music, lives year-round on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. “On the island, nothing ever happens,” he says. “In New York, everything happens. I was ready for an ‘everything happens’ kind of experience.”
He has been getting plenty of them. Thirty-eight years after he first made hearts palpitate as TV’s Dr. Kildare, Chamberlain, 65, has become a sex symbol all over again. Every night throngs of women wait outside the Martin Beck Theatre hoping to meet their idol. “Except now they’re not teenagers” he notes. “Mostly it’s middle-aged women, moms. They feel comfortable with me. They wouldn’t mind having me
over for dinner.”
At the very least. While most of his fan mail is restrained, Chamberlain reveals, “Sometimes they’ll write, “Do you realize you’re the father of my child?” And I’ve gotten some nude pictures.” Not that he really minds: “That’s part of the business.”
Chamberlain, who has never married, credits his continuing appeal to daily meditation, exercise (yoga and swimming) and a diet low in red meat and high in fish and vegetables. “I inherited some really good genes,” he adds, dismissing the idea of
plastic surgery. “My mother died at 92, and she didn’t look like an old woman at all.” Music costar Laura Benanti, 19, says his charm captivates her generation as well.
“He’s sensitive, handsome, smart, funny,” she says. “I see girls my age fall in love
with him and girls my grandmother’s age fall in love with him.” As for the huge
age gapbetween costars, Chamberlain says, “I persist in the illusion that I look considerably younger than my years.”
Born in Beverly Hills, Chamberlain, the second of two sons, inherited his love of performing from his mother, Elsa, a homemaker and amateur pianist. He also inherited a deep insecurity from his father, Charles, a salesman. “He was an alcoholic until I was 14,” says Chamberlain. “I had very little confidence in myself growing up, and I think that might be common in alcoholic families.” Even after his father recovered, he says frankly, “I never did fall back in love with him.” He began acting as an art major at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. After a two-year stint as an Army sergeant in Korea, he landed the title role in NBC’s Dr. Kildare in 1961. For the next five years,
“my face was on pillowcases,” he says. “Women would grab at me and want a piece of my clothes. It was complimentary - and a little frightening.
He also feared being typecast. “I knew I didn’t want to be hospitalized forever.” So the TV idol made a surprising move to London to establish himself in the theater, eventually landing on Broadway in 1976 in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. But he found mass adulation again as an English sailor stranded in Japan in the 1980 mini-series Shogun. Three years later, Chamberlain was crowned King of the Miniseries when he played Father Ralph de Bricassart, a priest tormented by forbidden love, in The Thorn Birds, a role that remains one of his favorites. (As if to prove the point, he clutches a reporter’s hand and slips into character. “Oh, Meggie, Meggie,” he moans. “What’s happening to my heart? What’s happening to my loins?”)
But theater, with its challenge of a live audience, still beckoned. In ’93, he appeared as Henry Higgins in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, and he will remain in Music until July, before starting a yearlong national tour with the show. Until then, he’s enjoying city life. “New York and Hawaii,” he says, “are a wonderful contrast - the idyllically beautiful nature and sweet, friendly people in the Islands, and all this razzmatazz in New York.” Besides, he adds, “I’m a hot-dog-on-the-street kind of guy. The best food in the world is a New York hot dog.”
Aside from the culinary shortcomings, life in Hawaii is ideal for Chamberlain, who moved there from L.A. in 1989. He divides his time between a beach house and a home near Honolulu; days are spent walking his dog Bartley - “I like animals on the whole better than people: - and painting. And he never has to sign autographs. “Local people don’t care about showbiz, which is a great relief,” he says. “The big event of the day is watching the sunset with a mai tai.”
© 1999 Dan Jewel & Natasha Stoynoff
The Sound of Music
Forgive me, oh mighty gods of the theatre, for I have sinned! I allowed the critics to talk me out of seeing something! I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I did it and I'm sorry and I swear if you forgive me that I'll never, ever do it anymore. (Oh dear, I'm slipping into Goodtime Charley!)
My mother was in town for the weekend with her heart set on seeing Richard Chamberlain in The Sound of Music. Now I have nothing against Mr. Chamberlain, a fine actor (whom I have always found easy on the eyes). However, critics and word of mouth had been overwhelmingly negative about this production, so I was less than enthusiastic about seeing yet another Sound of Music. After all, I've seen more than a dozen productions over the years, from high schools to national tours – what more was left to be done with this show?
To my surprise, the current Sound of Music cast is not only good – it's sensational! One of the best things I've seen in years! (No, I am NOT kidding!) Whatever shortcomings the original cast of this revival had have been gloriously repaired. Richard Chamberlain is perfect as Captain Von Trapp, a role that fits so well it might have been written for him. Aside from a commanding stage presence, he has a fine singing voice and a deft way with a showtune. He is as dashing and attractive as ever, and his love scene with Maria had the audience glowing. How refreshing to see a star deliver the goods, giving an audience all it had hoped for and more.
There's been a lot of talk about the young lady currently playing Maria, but since she was out the night I saw the show I cannot confirm that talk. However, her standby was Meg Tolin, a very talented actress who I've had the pleasure of seeing in the replacement casts of Showboat and Grand Hotel. She was the perfect Maria – feisty, vulnerable and vocally gifted. Her chemistry with the children was so warm and convincing that I almost envied them! I hope to catch this production again soon,
and I will probably be the only person in the audience who will not mind the least if
the lead is out sick!
(Please note: I went back the following week and saw Laura Benanti as Maria – she was sensational, with a glorious voice and a thoroughly disarming stage presence. She is the kind of performer Broadway once prayed for – talented and beautiful too. If asked to pick between the two, no question: I would insist on seeing both again!)
Jeanne Lehman was perfect as Mother Abbess, and her rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" left the audience cheering. The kids are usually a problem in The Sound of Music, but this bunch was a delight. They were believable instead of saccharine, and each of their numbers drew a tremendous ovation. "Do Re Mi" literally stopped the show! The standout was Tracy Alison Walsh as a hilariously no-nonsense Brigitta. Jan Sullivan was a refreshingly sympathetic Frau Shraeder, and veteran Danny Wolpe (a longtime favorite of mine) was a suave and loveable Uncle Max. Special note: after the seemingly endless re-hashes of Nunsense, its great to see nuns depicted with their humanity, dignity and humor intact.
Director Susan Shulman (The Secret Garden) deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the sweetness that plagues most productions of this show. She brought a fresh perspective to the material while keeping its creators intentions in mind. The physical production
is sumptuous but never overdone, painting a series of lush stage pictures with a minimum of fuss. (Some set-happy Brits could learn a thing or two from this production!) The much-loved score is handled beautifully, from the solos to the
choral singing of the nuns.
Yes, it still is a thrill to hear these wonderful songs, and I was very pleased that this production occasionally evoked the vocal arrangements of the real Von Trapp Family Singers – a warm, Tyrolean harmony that the original production and film barely hinted at. The Sound of Music has never looked or sounded better, and I think it is safe to say that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been delighted with this revival.
There is a special, soul-deep satisfaction I get from seeing a classic Broadway musical performed well, and it has been quite a while since I last had that feeling. The 90’s revivals of Gypsyand Guys and Dolls gave me that feeling – this Sound of Music did too. I walked in a skeptic and wound up on my feet cheering with the rest of the audience. My mom had such a ball that she actually went into the street singing – something she has never done before! She turned into a theatre buff right before my unbelieving eyes!
If you want to see a great musical at its best, or if you want to understand what people like me are talking about when we say today's mega-musicals are missing something important called "heart," give yourself the genuine pleasure of seeing the current Sound of Music. And don't be surprised if I’m sitting next to you!
© 1999 John Kenrick
And Tonight’s Star Will Be . . .
The women of a certain age are smiling. Looking into the faces up and down the aisles, you can see the pleasure in their eyes, sense the frisson the moment holds. Now they are breaking into warm and unexpectedly sustained applause: it’s only a kiss, for Pete’s sake. More to the point, it’s only “The Sound of Music.”
But the reaction is more than an expression of collective approval for the marriage plans of Captain von Trapp; there is something else going on between this actor and audience. Surveying the faces across the rows once more, the eyes appear to be clouding up with the mists of teen-age crushes that have never completely burned off. “Oh yes,” their girlish grins declare. “We go way back.”
It’s Richard Chamberlain they all have eyes for. At 63, the trim, immaculately groomed actor still exudes lynx-like handsomeness; add the familiar faraway gaze, and you not only have a flashback to young Dr. Kildare, but you also have made flesh of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s brusque Tyrolean taskmaster, whose stony façade cracks at the sound of Maria’s yodeling soprano and a chorus of children’s do-re-mi’s.
Mr. Chamberlain recently assumed the role of von Trapp in the “Sound of Music” revival that has been running for a year at the Martin Beck Theater, and it turns out to be particularly fortuitous casting. With the aid of a charming, silken-voiced newcomer named Laura Benanti playing Maria, Mr. Chamberlain makes this cardboard coupling work. Although it remains a part for a non-smiler, Mr. Chamberlain doesn’t freeze us out. He subtly raises von Trapp’s temperature in ways that eluded his predecessor, Michael Siberry. Like his faithful fans, he mists up at all the right moments.
His performance is one of those rare instances of replacement casting that compels
a theatergoer to ask, “Why didn’t they think of him in the first place?” Maybe they did. Whatever the circumstances, the “Sound of Music” is appreciably better than it
was a year ago, and in the nonstop revolving door of Broadway role-playing,
it is one of the best examples of how a show’s stock can rise on the strength of
its personal investments.
© 1999 Peter Marks
...Forceful Presence, Masterful Phrasing...
“The Sound of Music” might more accurately be called “The Power of Music.” Richard Chamberlain’s Captain von Trapp hears the title number after banishing music from his home, breaks into song himself, and is transformed from Mussolini to Mr. Rogers. Maria gets a belt of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and goes from singing nun (in training) to hausfrau with guitar.
That life is not nearly so easy has divided critics from the public ever since the hills came alive in 1959. But even if “The Sound of Music” is not the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I’m with the public on this one - a conviction reinforced by the strong touring production, despite the fact it has problems that make it blander than it should be. If you’re among this particular musical’s naysayers, this is not a transformative production that will change any minds - unlike the last two touring R & H shows to visit Boston, “Carousel” and “The King and I.”
It is, though, a representative production. Chamberlain is not the reincarnation of John Raitt, but his voice is evocative, his presence is forceful, and his phrasing is often masterful. Meg Tolin is never anything less than a winningly perky Maria, though she could take lessons from Chamberlain - not to mention predecessors like Julie Andrews and Mary Martin - in how to make her voice resonate with her considerable personality. The lack of a vocal personality is her only weakness. Together, Chamberlain and Tolin are an excellent pairing, one that makes me rue not having seen them together in
“My Fair Lady.”
“The Sound of Music” is not a storied collaboration like “West Side Story,” where everyone is working at the top of his game and all the personalities are meshing.
It was to be the last Rodgers and Hammerstein musical because Oscar Hammerstein was dying of cancer (he was told it was an ulcer) and by the time they came on
board, the book had been assigned to Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
Had a healthy Hammerstein written the book he might have avoided such abrupt personality transformations as the captain’s, although the lyrics here are
certainly not his strongest.
Similarly, this production has its highs and lows. Director Susan H. Schulman covers a lot of ground gratifyingly quick - it’s about 2-1/2 hours. Catherine Zuber’s costumes do the job, although you wouldn’t guess from them that she’s the wonderfully imaginative American Repertory Theatre clothes designer. On the other hand, Heidi Ettinger’s sets are astoundingly boring - the Alps look as claustrophobic as the abbey. And if Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography were any more militaristic, the children would be goose-stepping instead of gallivanting.
The saving grace of “The Sound of Music” has always been Richard Rodgers’s tuneful music and that is the saving grace of this production, not only from the leads’ performances but from the orchestra that manages to be both bright and unintrusive, Jeanne Lehman’s crystalline “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and the ensemble numbers from the children and the nuns. The acting is strong throughout - I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to go with Maria if Rachel de Benedet’s Elsa were the alternative.
The score, including the two numbers Rodgers added with his own lyrics for the movie, is unabashedly sentimental, but the emotion behind it is honest. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals all have an unappreciated feminist bent, with heroines moving from dependency (here on the church) to independence.
It’s Rodgers’s music that carries Maria on that journey and underscores Captain von Trapp’s enduring humanistic strength in “Edelweiss,” the last number written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. (I wish Chamberlain had punched that particular number up a bit.) The tunefulness ever present in “The Sound of Music” would soon all but disappear from musical theater and that has hardly been a welcome development.
Rodgers said that honest emotion “has always been a major element in the theatre,
and it’s my conviction that anyone who can’t, on occasion, be sentimental about children, home or nature is sadly maladjusted.” To paraphrase one of the songs,
how do you solve a problem like “The Sound of Music”? As this production shows,
by and large you leave it alone.
© 1999 Ed Siegel
Chamberlain Finds Ease in Life, on Stage
It’s another Saturday night on the road with “The Sound of Music,” and Richard Chamberlain is taking his bow to a sold-out house in Atlanta. He emits a glow, a golden old-boy glow, that beams to the top balcony as his fans look down and all but swoon at the meltable aristocrat, the romantic disciplinarian, the tender Tyrolean.
The audience roars its approval and demonstrates why the production is one of the most successful tours of the season. Obviously, they’re not coming for the painted Alps, the lederhosened kiddies or even the latest Maria. They’re coming for Capt. Von Trapp, aka Dr. Kildare, aka Rather Ralph de Bricassart, aka John Blackthorne, aka Richard Chamberlain, who at 64 may be the world’s oldest matinee idol.
Sandra Piccolo, clutching her silver purse and well-worn program, is standing at the stage door after the show along with several dozen other women of a certain age and a definite mindset.
“I wouldn’t wait for the president, but this is different,” says the 49-year-old Piccolo, who looks years younger in her dress-to-impress outfit. “I’ve loved him since ‘Dr. Kildare,’” she says of the TV series that launched Chamberlain’s career in 1961. “He has a certain presence. He’s elegant. He’s sincere. He’s clean-cut. He’s the type of person regular people like me could feel comfortable with.”
In person, Chamberlain strikes you as a Gatsby character, both splendid and private, who suddenly found himself in another era. His assisted good looks are indeed impressive; he appears marvelous and moisturized, sporting tailored dark clothes and a butterscotch tan. His dash, though, is slightly dimmed from the demands of publicity of a national tour. He is professionally pleasant and formally polite in a way that says baron, or butler. He’s done these interviews a million times. He knows the routine.
He remembers to return his far-away gaze to look you in the eye. He folds his hands thoughtfully. His words in his drawing-room voice are measured. The answers are
as controlled as his smile.
He goes over the bio effortlessly, especially the “king of the miniseries” mantle, which he gained through such shows of the past 20 years as “Centennial,” “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds,” “Wallenberg,” “Dream West” “The Bourne Identity,” “Casanova” and, most recently, “Too Rich: The Doris Duke Story.”
His miniseries reputation is enhanced by the cachet from his theatrical career,
beginning with his famous “Hamlet” in England in the mid-‘60s, where he became
one of the first TV stars to be taken seriously outside the medium. Though there
was the Broadway tailspin with the aborted musical “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” there
were far happier performances with such New York revivals as “Night of the Iguana,” “Blithe Spirit” and “My Fair Lady.”
But when he talks about his life in Hawaii, his paintings and his self-help guru, the mask slips a bit and a fresh, funny and almost-frank fellow emerges.
“It’s very laid-back,” he says dreamily, when asked about his home in Oahu, where he has lived for the past 10 years. “People don’t care anything about show business, which is wonderful. L.A. is so intense in terms of show business, whether you’re hot or cold, or what kind of car you drive and who you know. And none of that matters at all in Hawaii. I love it there.
“I’m very moved by nature, and I love the sea. My life is kind of slow there. I paint
a fair amount. All kinds. Oils, watercolors, pastels, acrylics. Some are realistic.
Some wacky surrealistic. Some abstract. I like changing a bit. It’s the same as acting. I had a show of my (art) work in Hawaii about a year and a half ago. And we’re going to have a sort of traveling exhibition that goes along with the tour, starting in Boston (where the show opens Tuesday and continues through Nov. 7 at the Colonial Theatre. Press opening is Oct. 20). I also have a website. It’s a wonderful life.
“I love to waste time. I love to dawdle, mainly because my work is so disciplined.
For instance, when I get back to the theater at night, I can’t wait to get back to my hotel room and be completely alone and just watch Charlie Rose or something like that. Just not to have any responsibilities whatsoever. And in Hawaii, I just like to spend days like that.”
But on the road, it’s not always easy, with eight shows a week, even if it’s not exactly a heavy-lifting role and he’s not the one hitting Maria’s high Cs. He follows a strict regimen whereby he is up by 9:30, followed by breakfast, exercise, a careful diet (as little red meat as possible), vocalizing, dinner, then off to the theater. Swimming every other day and in between “I just jump around and do pull-ups. A little yoga. I’ve done TM in the past, but I can’t get organized to meditate on the road.”
He says he’s more centered now, more relaxed and himself than ever before. “I don’t take life nearly as seriously as my characters do,” he says, laughing. “My friends think I’m funny. Right now, I have an idea for a sitcom we’re putting together in which I’d play a really way-out character. I can’t talk about it, though, but it’s really way out.”
© 1999 Frank Rizzo
...Confidence, Strength and Amazing Control ...
The pre-show scrim says it all -- a snow globe scene of Austria. And once
“The Sound of Music” starts, that’s just what you get -- a lovely, shimmering look
at a now famous story.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” was the team’s last venture together. After hits like “The King & I,” “South Pacific” and “Carousel,” the R&H era ground to a halt with the illness of Hammerstein. And with the film version such an icon of American entertainment, it might be hard to surpass that image of Julie Andrews tripping across the mountains, singing. However, once you adapt to the pace and scale of the stage show (after all, there’s no way to compete with those sweeping panoramas of the film), the evening settles into warm entertainment. And if it doesn’t provide any theatrical fireworks, it more than makes up for it with charm.
In a nutshell (for those few souls who don’t already know), the plot is inspired by the true story of the Von Trapp Family Singers and Maria, a postulant studying to become
a nun. Torn between life in the Nonnberg Abbey and life on the outside, she is sent to work as a governess for the Von Trapps. The seven children are motherless, and the father is a disciplinarian who refers to their clothes as uniforms and calls them by means of a boatswain’s whistle.
Due to a lack of attention from their father, the children rebel by frightening away nannies. Into this scene comes Maria. She wins over the children and brings music back to the palatial home where there has been none since the death of the mother. This softens Captain Von Trapp, and he and Maria eventually fall in love and marry. Returning from his honeymoon, he finds the Nazis overtaking Austria. They attempt to force a commission in their Navy upon him. However, the family escapes via a singing appearance at a folk festival and live happily ever after once they trek across the mountains to the safety of Switzerland.
This is an interesting show in the way that it bills its stars. Mary Martin created the role on Broadway 40 years ago. Julie Andrews made the role her own later in the film version. And when the show was revived in New York two years ago, Rebecca Luker
was the draw.
While the film leaned more heavily on Maria, the stage version gives almost equal time to Maria and the Captain. Meg Tolin stars as Maria and Richard Chamberlain is Captain Von Trapp. And as Chamberlain has a far more noteworthy name than Tolin, it is his presence that you’ll see above the title and in all advertising.
Is this just a marketing ploy to get you in? Not at all as Chamberlain impressively fills the role with confidence, strength and amazing control. He is totally in command.
Meg Tolin, a ringer for Meg Ryan, plays Maria admirably, if a little too gosh-golly. She has a sweet singing voice but could shade her performance a bit musically. She’s singing a score that’s become a classic in American musical theater, but too much of her performance is the same.
Chamberlain, on the other hand, shows why he’s had a career that’s run from some of the most powerful mini-series in television history to classic stage productions of “Hamlet” and “Richard II.” He is stone cold when necessary, and yet melts when faced with losing his homeland. He works wonderfully with the children, and for those who don’t know the full range of his skills, his singing will be a pleasant surprise. (Local theater-goers will remember that he starred in a revival of “My Fair Lady” that swung through town a few seasons ago -- with Tolin as his co-star.) The supporting company is grand as well. Rachel de Benedet turns in a diva-like performance as Elsa Schraeder, who appears to have the Captain sewn up as her husband to be. And Drew Eshelman is great as Max Detweiler, the entrepreneur who longs to make musical stars out of the children, although “it wouldn’t be bad for me either.”
And then there’s the children -- each and every one a pro. Each is unique and each turns in a fine performance. They are: Megan McGinnis as Liesl, Greg Sullo as Friedrich, Diana Rice as Louisa, Alex Bowen as Kurt, Carissa Farina as Brigitta, Andrea Bowen as Marta and little Ashlee Keating as Gretl. Although she’s only as big as a peanut, Ashlee will capture your heart in “Do Re Mi” and has a two second bit of business that upstages the entire number.
This is a show that’s clearly about the music, and with Rodgers and Hammerstein, there’s not much to question. From the title song to “My Favorite Things,” just about every number is a standard. Additionally, two songs from the film (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”) have been added to the revival, which is presented by Hallmark. The true goose-bump moment of the show is provided not by the leading players, but by Jeanne Lehman as Mother Abbess. She closes Act One with a glorious version of “Climb Every Mountain.”
(An additional treat on opening night in Boston was seeing several members of the actual Von Trapp Family in the audience, including Liesl.)
Chamberlain Enjoying ‘Sound of Music’ Role
Richard Chamberlain has an estate on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. His years of
being a heartthrob - first as television’s Dr. Kildare and later as the television
miniseries king in “The Thorn Birds” - have solidified his place in pop culture as a
star with a capital “S.”
So what’s he doing touring the country for nine months as Captain von Trapp, singing songs such as “Edelweiss” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music”?
“It is an awfully long tour; I must admit it can be hard. We have to travel on our day off so it’s really not a day off. Physically, it’s quite rigorous,” he says. “ But it’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of like a bunch of kids saying, ‘Let’s go to the barn and put on a show.’
“One of the things that’s exciting is the audience loves the show so much, and that just keeps it fresh, keeps it fun to do. And it pays very well,” the 65-year-old says.
The “Sound of Music” tour began in September, after the show closed on Broadway, and Chamberlain has signed on until the end of May.
“The cast gets very close because we just have each other. We’ve all become good friends,” he says. And yes, Chamberlain says, despite the adage about scene-stealing children, his fondness for the cast definitely includes the seven young actors who play his mischievous children.
“I have to admit, my fear was we’d get some of these 7-year-old prima donnas who can be beastly. But our kids are so charming and sweet. And they’re such professionals, real hardworking kids,” he says. “Offstage, they play uproariously. They can really be funny. But on-stage, they’re completely, absolutely professional.
“I’ve just been delighted by them. So has the audience.”
The actor says he’s also been pleasantly surprised to discover that there was more to playing Captain von Trapp than he originally thought.
“When they first called me to come to New York . . . I thought why not? I can live in New York for a few months and have a good time. It turned out I underestimated the role. I thought it’s just a secondary role, no big deal. Well, that’s not the case. It’s a big, important role. It’s much more rewarding than I had anticipated.”
Of course “The Sound of Music” is really about a spirited nun, Maria, played by Meg Tolin, who learns she may not be the best nun in the abbey but can be a good mother to the seven children of the naval captain Georg von Trapp.
The role of the captain is usually seen as something of a cold and brusque man who is softened by Maria, but Chamberlain says there are other aspects to von Trapp that make him an interesting character to play. “An awful lot happens to him, which is what makes him interesting in the play.
He’s really a mess in the beginning. He’s lost his position in the navy, he’s been forced to follow the Third Reich, which he is opposed to, and he’s lost his wife,”
“My take is that he really loved her, and so, I think, in order to keep from falling apart with all of this happening, he becomes kind of super-organized and militarized. He moves away from his children because they remind him of his happier days with his wife. He’s trying to hold himself together.”
Chamberlain says the role has taken a lot out of him. “I’ve actually had less energy for doing things outside the show than I expected.”
That also has sometimes meant less energy to greet fans who, buoyed by fond memories of the actor in one of his many roles, go to the stage door to meet Chamberlain after the show.
“Sometimes I find I don’t have any energy after a show, so I’ll slip out the front door, but when I can, I come out and say hello. I’m always so surprised at people’s reactions. I never get used to it. It’s such a lovely thing, and people are usually so nice,” he says.
“They tell me about their favorites - ‘Thorn Birds,’ ‘Dr. Kildare.’ I just think it’s sweet. I’m always amazed that people still remember. I’m incredibly grateful.”
Chamberlain, whose own favorite was “Shogun,” says he’s already considering his next move for when his stint with “Sound of Music” ends. A new play at a regional theater and television and film projects are all being considered.
“They’re all maybes,” he said. “I love to work, but I also love not to work, so we’ll see what happens.”
© 2000 Karyn D. Collins
A Sprightly ‘Sound of Music’
Sentimentality, piety weigh down story
Equipped with a fresh set, modestly tweaked score, a frisky Meg Tolin as Maria and Richard Chamberlain’s name to hang on the marquee, “The Sound of Music” is back before we had time to miss it. The 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial about an Austrian family singing its way to freedom opened Tuesday at the Golden Gate Theatre.
True, plenty of children have come of theater-going age since Marie Osmond cruised through town in 1994. Introducing young postulants to “Music” may be the strongest reason to catch Susan H. Schulman’s production, which airbrushes in some light changes without threatening any time-honored memories. Child-free adults may still have to fight the accumulation of leaden sentimentality and sanctimonious uplift that pulls against the work’s genuine charms.
Unlike the brilliantly re-imagined “Carousel,” “The Sound of Music” is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s immovable final alp, bright, ascendant and firmly resistant to interpretive probing. It is what it is: a sunnily scored story (firmly plotted by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) of love finding its true way, children finding the right new mother and the von Trapps finding their way past the Nazis and out of Austria in 1938.
Mountains ring the stage in the CinemaScope frame of Heidi Ettinger’s set. Inside,
Capt. Georg von Trapp’s twirling wedding cake villa trades places with the
foreshortened Gothic geometries of the abbey where Maria is driving everyone batty.
The production works best in the longer first act. Tolin makes a winning first impression in the title song, clomping around in the hiking boots and boyishly short hair of
a real nature lover. Her voice is bright and sparkly, but she’s no delicate replica
of Marias mast.
She horses around in front of the Mother Abbess, finds her own musical intervals in
“I Have Confidence” (one of two songs borrowed back from the 1965 “Sound of Music” film) and bounces on the bed with the children on her first night as governess. Tolin makes it believable: She’s a true, quirky innocent.
The nuns seem authentic, too, working away at their potters’ trade in mud-caked aprons in “Maria.” Jeanne Lehman makes a strong, practical Mother Abbess. She enters “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” at a brisk clip and charges ahead to the climax.
There’s still too much church music in the show, with the nuns intoning “Preludium” and “Finale Ultimo,” a “Morning Hymn” and that pompously silly “Wedding Processional” that renders “flibbertigibbet” as a sacred word. Another strong candidate for excision, the pokey love duet “Ordinary Couple,” is sensibly cut here.
Chamberlain is intriguing to watch for a while. His age (66) is carefully concealed by makeup and a thick mane of hair. Less animated than others in the role, he uses a distant, stoical gaze to suggest the pain of a man still mourning his dead wife and walled off from his own children.
His baritone is little more than technically adequate, however, and sometimes pretty creaky. And Chamberlain’s performance takes on a waxworks sheen at times - with his mechanical double take at the huge Nazi banner in the concert scene, for example, and near breakdown in “Edelweiss.”
Tolin has a way of warming him up. Their “Laendler” dance is a sweet seduction that seems to catch them both off guard.
The seven von Trapp children are fine, singing with the rough edge of beginners at first and growing more accomplished as the night progresses. San Francisco alumnus Drew Eshelman plays Georg’s pragmatic friend Max with a discreet, evasive touch. It raises the interesting - and very plausible - possibility that the character is a closeted homosexual. Rachel DeBenedet turns the predatory Elsa, Georg’s soon-to-be-banished fiancée, into a ceramic villainess.
With its fluidly staged numbers like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things” and “Sixteen
Going on Seventeen,” “The Sound of Music” has an undimmed power to lift the spirits.
But the buoyancy doesn’t always last, especially when the show takes to the
pulpit about the human spirit.
© 2000 Steven Winn
'Sound's' Women Have Local Ties
Unlike thousands of Richard Chamberlain's devoted fans, Wheat Ridge native Meg Tolin has made a career out of falling in love nightly with the star. Tolin plays the starring role of Maria in the national touring production of "The Sound of Music."
"Richard and I have known each other for quite awhile, and been through a lot together," Tolin says. "He makes falling in love with Captain von Trapp so easy. People talk about this chemistry we have onstage. You can't force those kinds of things. It's because he's such a warm and giving person."
Tolin first met Chamberlain in 1994, toward the end of her eight-month stint understudying the role of Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production of "My Fair Lady." Chamberlain joined the cast four months before the show closed; one night, Tolin learned they would be performing together.
"I was going onstage as an understudy with no rehearsal," she recalls. "Onstage with Richard Chamberlain. I just said, 'Hi, I'm Meg Tolin, and I'll be playing your Eliza tonight.' You rise to the occasion." When Chamberlain signed on to star in the national tour of "My Fair Lady," Tolin took over the role of Eliza, and they toured together for eight months. Four years later, Chamberlain took over the Captain role on Broadway, then decided to take that show on tour as well. "I asked for Meg to play Maria," Chamberlain says. "She had to audition of course, but they were absolutely delighted with her. She's a marvelous Maria."
While Tolin and Chamberlain are creating theatrical fireworks onstage, it's easy to neglect the "other woman" in the show, Captain von Trapp's millionaire fiancée Elsa Schraeder. The role of Elsa, referred to as "The Baroness" in the film version, is played by Rachel de Benedet, who was a frequent headliner for nearly a decade at Arvada Center and Country Dinner Playhouse productions before making New York her professional home. "My husband and I still have a house in Eldorado Springs," de Benedet says. "That's been home for nine years."
Her last show in Colorado was "Some Enchanted Evening," a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue at Country Dinner Playhouse in February 1998. She received critical acclaim for other CDP productions, playing Kate in "Kiss Me Kate" and Maria in
"The Sound of Music." "'The Sound of Music' was my first major musical," de Benedet says. "I played Brigitta in a Kansas high school production. So far I've played
six different roles in the show, including several of the nuns. I still have the Mother Abbess and the maid to go."
Though her character winds up empty-handed, de Benedet enjoys her time onstage, particularly since the show has reinstated "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It," Elsa's two songs that were cut from the movie.
She also loves sharing the stage with Chamberlain. "Richard is a dream to work with," she says. "Backstage he goofs around, dancing in the wings like a silly little boy.
But when he comes onstage he's tough, until Maria melts his heart."
© 2000 Patrick Dorn
In ‘Sound of Music,’ Chamberlain is King of Hearts
As Dr. Kildare he healed bodies and set ladies hearts afire. In “Shogun” he sailed a
ship to exotic Japan. And as a priest in “The Thorn Birds” he took vows of celibacy
and gladly broke them for a beautiful woman.
Richard Chamberlain has covered a great deal of ground since he burst into the national consciousness in 1961 as a handsome young James Kildare, earnest intern at
Blair General Hospital.
He spent the better part of the 1970s and 1980s as the king of the mini-series but has dabbled now and then with theater.
Although he still found time to make the odd movie, like the 1996 TV movie sequel
“The Thorn Bird: The Missing Years,” Chamberlain has continued to work on stage,
most notably in a 1993 Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”
About a year ago, Chamberlain stepped into the role of stern Capt. Georg von Trapp
in a New York revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” Now
he’s touring the country with the show, which opens Tuesday at San Francisco’s
Golden Gate Theatre for a short two-week run.
Speaking on the phone from his Seattle hotel room shortly before heading to the Bay Area, Chamberlain says he went to see “The Sound of Music” in New York after producers approached him about joining the cast and replacing the actor
playing the Captain.
“I was surprised by how charming the show is, how potent it is,” he says. “It packs a wallop that’s hard to explain. Obviously it has a charming score, but it’s more than that. Audiences, both men and women, are quite moved by the show. I think it reminds us of memories and longings of a simpler time when kids weren’t on drugs and weren’t shooting each other.”
Living in tropical splendor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, Chamberlain, 65, says
he was lured away from home - and from his dog, Bartley - by the prospect of a
faster-paced, big-city life.
“The thing I love about Hawaii, apart from the natural beauty, is that absolutely nothing happens there,” he says. “But sometimes I’m ready for something to happen beyond watching the sun set.”
The excitement of New York, a town Chamberlain professes to love, and the appeal of taking on what he thought of as a “smallish” role in a big musical were more than enough to send Chamberlain packing for the mainland.
But to the actor’s surprise, the role of Capt. Von Trapp, a widower and naval officer
who treats his household staff and six children as if they were his crew, proved to
be tough and demanding.
“I thought I’d just breeze in and have a lot of fun,” he says. “But it’s a very taxing role. In musicals, everything is written in short hand because you have to tell the story quickly and move on to the musical numbers. You have to be on your toes every second because the changes and shifts take place so fast.”
For instance, in the space of about five minutes toward the end of the first act, the Captain dumps Elsa, his girlfriend, and proposes to Maria, his children’s governess.
“You have to play each moment with absolute conviction so the audience comes along with you,” he explains. “If you don’t, they won’t. It’s a high wire act, and it’s hard. But audiences love this show so much that you have to persist and give them nothing less than your best.”
In the original 1959 production of “The Sound of Music,” the Captain didn’t have much to do. Most of the focus was on Maria, an aspiring, inspiring nun, and the Captain’s brood of adorable children.
But when Christopher Plummer took on the Captain in the wildly popular 1965 movie version, the role became more prominent, and Rodgers (following Hammerstein’s death) wrote two new songs, including a love duet for the Captain and Maria.
For the current revival, director Susan H. Schulman has wisely restructured the stage version to more closely resemble the movie, adding in the two movie songs and giving Chamberlain more to do than just a tear-jerking version of “Edelweiss.”
Chamberlain says he had seen the movie - who hasn’t? - but didn’t watch it again while preparing for the role, nor did he do much research into the life of the real-life Georg von Trapp.
“I have found that in a show that’s pretty much fictionalized, it’s not always rewarding to know too much about the real person,” he says. “I think the show offers enough information.”
People who know Chamberlain only as an actor have missed out on an intriguing part of his career. He’s been singing almost as long as he’s been acting. He actually recorded albums during the Kildare years and has a top 10 1962 hit with the show’s theme song, “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight.”
He also appeared in one of Broadway’s most notorious musical flops. Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore had the dubious honor of starring in a 1967 musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s - produced by David Merrick who died last week - that closed in New York before it even opened.
Through it all, flops, hits and mini-series after mini-series, the fans have remained steadfast. Just like they did 40 years ago, Chamberlain’s adoring lady admirers
still scream and squeal for him, though they’re, as he says, “just a little older
than they used to be.”
“Fan response is delightful,” the still trim and handsome Chamberlain says.
“But I still don’t understand it. I get up in the morning, look in the mirror
and don’t see anything special.”
© 2000 Chad Jones
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 “Thorn Birds” 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 theater 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 theater 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
The young Chamberlain said he traveled a “universe of imagined sights” and relied on his artistic talent for expression. In college, he discovered theater.
“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 Theater in Massachusetts. “The Shadow of Greatness,” by first-time playwright Gary Socol, is “about the dubious value of worshiping celebrity,”
“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
Making a New List of Favorite Things
‘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 the 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 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 re-orchestrated 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 the 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 theater-goers of all ages enthralled by the production. “Audiences want to be moved,” she says. “That’s the bottom line in storytelling.”
© 2000 Scarlet Cheng
A Few of His Favorite Things
King of the miniseries takes center stage in “Sound of Music”
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 be doing this week in a Broadway-nurtured revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III’s “The Sound of Music” at the Pantages Theatre
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
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 love ‘The Thorn Birds,’” says Chamberlain, speaking by phone. “They’re very sweet letters.”
“The Thorn Birds,” of course, 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 Nov. 16, 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
“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 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 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!”
A resident of Hawaii for many years, Chamberlain was born and grew up in Los Angeles. Though he returns here frequently on business, he admits to holding some strongly negative feelings about his hometown.
“I’m not too fond of L.A.,” he says. “I have some great friends there, but the (entertainment) business is very tough and the town itself gives me the feeling of one of the places that is about pure materialism. It’s so important there what you drive, and people walking down Rodeo Drive . . .
“There’s something about the values of the town that I find very seductive, and when I’m in town I start to slowly kind of bring them back into my life again. And I find I don’t have that in Hawaii, or in New York, for that matter.”
These days, Chamberlain maintains his equilibrium by wave watching, exercising and painting (an exhibition of his work is on view through March at Wolfrey Selway Fine Art gallery, 8678 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood).
He also has taken to heart a line that Father Ralph speaks in “The Thorn Birds.” Roughly translated, it has to do with the idea that no gift in life is given without a cost.
“The more I think about it, the more obviously true it is. I mean, you might have a billion dollars tomorrow, but, please! If you have children you’re missing freedom, and if you have freedom you’re missing children. So there’s always something.”
The perpetual bachelor bears that thought in mind when he’s on the road for long tours like this one.
“I’ve been watching myself with, ‘Oh my God, I wish I were back in Hawaii, and what am I doing in this hotel room?’”
But now, he says, he’s been learning how to enjoy reality, not as one might wish it be, but as it exists at a given moment.
“Which is such a wonderful place to be, I think.”
© 2000 Reed Johnson