Making the Sound of Music hum

The Sound of Music is among the best-known musicals of all time – and will be in New Zealand with a cast of Kiwi kids next month. Michelle Duff gets the jump on what we can expect here, at the Singapore premiere.

Never work with children or animals, they say in showbiz. In their infinite wisdom, the producers of The Sound of Music didn’t just throw away the rule book, they punted it across the hills, possibly in the key of C minor.

When the Andrew Lloyd Webber production of the popular musical put out a casting call in New Zealand, the response was huge. More than 1000 kids pulled on their best tights for auditions in Wellington and Auckland, vying for the roles of the von Trapp children.

After three intensive days, 18 children were selected – a rotating cast to play the two cities, with understudies for each.

It’s the third time the producers have gone through the gruelling audition process, with hundreds of kids auditioning in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Singapore, the other main centres where the show has premiered. The amount of times resident director Anton Luitingh has heard the line “So long, farewell, it’s time to say goodby-ye” really doesn’t bear thinking about.

But on a muggy Singapore morning, he says it’s always worthwhile.

“Without the kids The Sound of Music isn’t the magical show that it is, the kids are the stars of the show and the kids are what makes it hum.

“I want the kids on stage to be kids, I don’t want them to be little machines – we need them to have that energy. The 18 kids we chose I can seriously say are stunning, and I can’t wait to work with them.”

At the Singapore premiere that evening, one of the show’s stars is the gorgeous Chloe Choo, who plays little Gretl von Trapp. While the cute Singaporean would clearly not be the product of a von Trapp coupling, the audience is too enamoured with her to care.

From the beginning, they made the call to cast “beyond Caucasian”, Luitingh says.

“They look a little bit like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s kids, but it’s great. They bring a little bit of international flavour into the show. It also gives non-Caucasian children the chance to flaunt their skills.”

The Sound of Music opens in Wellington on September 12, with the Auckland season beginning on October 3. Based on a true story, it follows the spirited Maria, who is sent from a nunnery to become the governess of the widowed Captain von Trapp and his seven children.

It is set against the backdrop of an imminent World War II, as Maria transforms the von Trapps lives through music before they are forced to flee from the Nazis across the alps from Austria to Switzerland.

This latest incantation of the London Palladium production has a largely South African cast, and began in Cape Town in January. Singapore is the second stop on the tour, which will head to China after New Zealand.

“South Africans do tend to be the flavour of the month, because there’s so much talent in South Africa and people enjoy working with South Africans,” Luitingh says. “And, obviously, from a financial point of view we work well for the producers.”

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As resident director, Luitingh is in charge of making sure the show hits the highest notes in each city, “a complete blueprint of anything you would see in London or New York”.

It’s not without its challenges. The cast of a touring show tends to be younger, because it is difficult for those with families to be away from home. A tired cast and crew who had been living in each others’ pockets for eight weeks has to be managed with tact.

Staging the show in different theatres brings its own headache. “How wide is the stage, what are the lights like, where are the nuns going to walk . . . they are the practical challenges.”

The only part of the show that has changed between countries, apart from the children, is the pace of the humour, he says.

“Sometimes I will change the rhythm of it – some jokes work really well in South Africa, but they don’t go so well in Singapore. For some reason, in Singapore, they find the religious aspects of the show really funny. I don’t know if that’s because there’s so many different religions here.

“I’m frantically there with my notebook saying ‘OK, they didn’t pick that up. We might have to do that in another way’.”

Producers also sought advice on whether using the swastika on stage would be appropriate in Singapore, because it had been traditionally used in Buddhist culture as a symbol of peace.

Luitingh auditioned the New Zealand kids in April, alongside resident choreographer and kids director Duane Alexander.

The audition process was intensive, with two days of vocal workshops and dancing – with cuts made at each stage – before whittling the list down. “Yes it is terrible to be cut at the end, especially if you make it to the last 50 or 60, but I’m not a ‘bad cop’. We want to give these kids an experience rather than a harrowing audition process,” Luitingh says.

“You’re looking for the theatre kids who are singers, actors, dancers, and who have that little bit of magic you’d expect of someone who is going to make it into the top 18.”

Luitingh will fly to New Zealand almost immediately after the show’s Singapore run, where he and Alexander have three weeks to work with the children to get them to an international standard.

For the cast, it’s a hectic life. They perform an average of eight shows a week from Tuesday to Sunday, with vocal warmups beginning before lunchtime for the weekend matinee shows.

There will be a few cast changes from Singapore to New Zealand. International opera star Lesley Garrett, who played Mother Abbess in the original West End show, will replace South African soprano Janelle Visagie to reprise her role here. And Captain von Trapp, played by Andre Schwartz in Singapore, will be taken over by Mark Rayment.

But the role of Maria belongs to Bethany Dickson, who was last on stage in New Zealand as Sandy in Grease. When I meet her she’s nervous about opening night. “I generally try not to talk too much during the day, and try to save my voice so I can give my very best. I always find opening night stressful, but I just try and stay as relaxed as I can,” she says.

At 26, Dickson is much younger than the Maria in the original 1959 Broadway production, which starred Mary Martin, aged 46. When The Sound of Music film was released in 1965, Julie Andrews was just 30 when she played Maria.

But the original Maria von Trapp, who inspired the musical, was around 19 when she was sent to become a governess in the Von Trapp villa.

For Dickson the character of Maria has come full circle, with her mum playing the role and Dickson playing Liesl in a South African production when she was 13. Her mum has been one of her greatest fans, coming to watch the show “a good few times,” in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. How many “Um, about 20 times.”

The role of Max Detwieler, Von Trapp’s boisterous best friend, is played by musical theatre veteran James Borthwick, 66. He had been part of several large international productions to cast from South Africa, including Chess, Sunset Boulevard and Singing in the Rain.

“It’s great for us as well,” Borthwick says. “It’s a huge compliment, because these companies have very, very strict artistic standards which they are not prepared to compromise on. These people have massive reputations that have to be held up and we get experience at this level of production that we wouldn’t otherwise.”

Before The Sound of Music, Borthwick had travelled through Seoul and the Philippines with Phantom of the Opera. But he pulled out of Phantom when four straight months on the road became too much. The Sound of Music was much more manageable, with performers having two weeks back home in South Africa before coming to New Zealand. And he loves the show. “It’s just got great, old fashioned values.”

Luitingh thinks it’s the themes of the musical that give it such a universal appeal – a family battles tragedy and finds love again, the nostalgic songs . . . all set against the chaotic background of a world war.

“There are themes there that aren’t exactly light and fluffy, and I think that has made it stand the test of time. It’s a story of humanity, of the struggles we face in our lives, and are still relevant in 2014. If a father can go home and hug his kids a little harder after watching The Sound of Music, then that’s what it’s all about.”

– Sunday Star Times