Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Reverend Mother Played Poker

That was just one of the many anecdotal gems I heard yesterday afternoon during the 50th anniversary celebration of The Sound of Music at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. Bringing together authors, original cast and family members, the event was more an affectionate reunion than anything else, and proved to be an unexpectedly moving experience.

Arriving at the bookstore about an hour early, I spent my time observing the fans lined up with wrist bands and their memorabilia. They had among them original gatefold LP releases and Playbills, as well as copies of the new cast album CD, and The Sound of Music pop-up book. Looking through the glass doors to the performance area, I caught sight of Theodore Bikel rehearsing with a guitar. I couldn't hear him singing, but was mesmerized at the mere sight of him.

It was a surreal moment: exactly fifty years ago to the date - and on the same day of the week, no less - this man was costarring opposite Mary Martin in what would prove to be the final, and most popular, Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I'm sure everyone involved at the time had hoped they would have a hit show, but I doubt they knew the cultural phenomenon that was to come with its success and the subsequent blockbuster film adaptation in 1965.

Joined by my very own Elsa, as well as Byrne, the three of us took our seats second row center and watched for about thirty minutes as original cast members greeted one another while the original cast album played on the overhead speakers. Mary Rodgers Guettel, daughter of Richard and Anna Crouse, widow of Russel, greeted fans and friends from their seats over on the right. Actors who hadn't seen one another years were rekindling and reconnecting. It was particularly heartwarming to see such genuine affection, much like you would find in for a high school class reunion. We discovered who these folks were in Ted Chapin's introduction, we ended up sitting behind four of the original nuns.

Chapin invoked the old chestnut of "starting at the very beginning," and to kick off the festivities Finian's Rainbow star Kate Baldwin was on hand to sing the legendary title song with her usual resplendence and grace. Baldwin herself once played Maria in a production with St. Louis MUNY in 2005, involving "82 children and a raccoon."

Laurence Maslon, author of The Sound of Music Companion and The South Pacific Companion, was the evening's moderator and introduced us to Maria's grandson, Sam von Trapp, who is the vice president of special projects at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont and to Bert Fink, senior vice president for communications at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, who had contributed liner notes to the cast album reissue and wrote the new pop-up book.

Mr. von Trapp talked briefly about growing up with his famed grandmother, and how after seeing the film once when he was around six or seven, was pretty much kept away from the material. It wasn't until he was in his twenties and in South America when people asked him excitedly if he was related to La Novicia Rebelde (The Rebel Novice, the Latin American title for the film) that his family's story was so impactful. At that point he started to understand that there was something substantial going on, and on his return home asked "What's up with this musical?" Mr. von Trapp only briefly touched on his grandmother, who died when he was fifteen.

Mr. Fink talked a bit about the real story of the Trapp Family Singers and their plight, and comparing and contrasting the history and myth behind their escape from Nazi controlled Austria. If you weren't in attendance yesterday, much of what he said is laid out within his superb liner notes. There are considerable differences between the idealized Maria, and her much stronger and the actual, no-nonsense historical figure. Fink quoted Theodore Bikel, who once referred to her as "a tyrannical saint." Fink went onto describe the real Maria as someone "who knew when she was right" and as a "figure who held the family together."

Then Mr. Maslon introduced the original Rolf and Liesl - Brian Davies and Lauri Peters. Davies also appeared on Broadway as the original Hero in Forum and in James Joyce's The Dead. Maslon said he had an incredibly difficult time tracking down Peters, only to discover that she had taught in his building at NYU. Peters had some minor success as an actress following The Sound of Music, most notably as James Stewart and Maureen O'Hara's eldest child in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, but has spent much of her adult life teaching and writing about the Meisner acting technique.

The duo fondly recalled their time together, with Davies admitting that he was too young at the time to realize what the musical was saying to audiences all too familiar with the horrors of WWII. Quite the raconteur, Davies reminisced how "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" was staged for an elaborate set only to discover it didn't fit inside in the theatre in New Haven. In the interim while the set was being adapted, choreographer Joe Layton hastily restaged the number around a bench. Layton found he liked it better this way and kept it as is.

Peter, who exudes a charming youthfulness, was asked about what it was like to be nominated for a Tony Award. She confessed that when she learned of her nomination she hadn't an idea what a Tony was, and also how she shared the nomination (Best Featured Actress in a Musical) with the other six von Trapp children including the boys. She recalled "Miss Martin" as a professional who set the tone for the entire company, but felt that the term "professional" was slighting the star's personality. Peters classified Martin as "warm, funny, kind, genuine" but also stressed "the work and the audience were what mattered most." There was "no hanky-panky" and no "upstaging" on Martin's watch.

Both actors agreed it was a "great introduction to professional behavior in the theatre." However, Davies did tell an amusing anecdote from an incident that took place nine months into the show's run. As Rolf, one of his props was his bicycle and on one night where he wasn't paying particular attention, Davies sent the bike rolling directly into the orchestra. After the curtain call, he received the notification "Could you please come to Miss Martin's dressing room?" Expecting the worst, he was brought inside where the star immediately proceeded to tell him about the night she cartwheeled right off the stage into the pit during "A Wonderful Guy" during the original run of South Pacific, in an effort to dilute the younger actor's embarrassment.

Then it was time for Theodore Bikel, the original Captain von Trapp. Bikel has had an extensive career in film, television and theatre, with an Emmy Award, and nominations for both the Oscar and Tony. On his introduction, the 85 year old star told the audience that Davies and Peters should sing "I am sixty going on seventy." Bikel, who was an established folk singer as well as an actor, talked of his audition for the show, in which he sang some numbers by Frank Loesser. He had also brought his guitar with him. While Bikel was accompanying himself on a traditional folk song, Martin turned to Rodgers and said "We don't have to look much further, do we?"

Bikel, a remarkable storyteller, told the crowd that eleven days before the New York opening, Rodgers & Hammerstein still felt that the second act needed another number and collaborated - for what was to be the last time - on the song "Edelweiss." ("A genuine Austrian folk song," he quipped). It struck Bikel as moving and appropriate that the final word Mr. Hammerstein ever wrote for the theatre was "forever."

When asked for insight into the show's success and universal appeal with audiences, Bikel talked about the show's innocence. He said that the musical has "an aura of reality surrounded by myth and people love that." He further mused, "How can you go wrong in a show with children and nuns?" He also told of Zsa Zsa Gabor's backstage visit post-show, and how she tearily told him how this story of a family escaping over the mountains was the story of her own life. Bikel reminded her that she had married a well-to-do Turkish gentleman and emigrated to the US without much turmoil.

Mr. Bikel was then asked to compare himself with the character of Captain von Trapp. He said that there weren't many similarities since as a child in Vienna, he didn't travel in aristocratic circles. Bikel, who is Jewish, became a refugee because he had no choice and had to uproot himself from his homeland and culture in order to survive. The same didn't apply for the Captain. He did have the choice to collaborate with the Third Reich, but didn't because he thought they were barbarians. He further expounded that up until that point Nazism hadn't been seen dramatized onstage, let alone in musicals. The creative team slowly softened the edges during tryouts. Swastikas were removed, Nazi uniforms were made more nondescript and the "Heil Hitler" became a simple "Heil." He said he was a Broadway musical novice and didn't want to ruffle any feathers, but did offer the criticism that the original production was "Holocaust lite."

In the most moving and unforgettable moment of the evening, Mr. Maslon asked Mr. Bikel if he would close the event with a performance of "Edelweiss." Mr. Bikel sat down with a guitar (which he said he borrowed from Peter Yarrow) at the microphone and offered two tender refrains of the touching ballad, sounding remarkably the same as he did when he first sang it.

Afterwards, as folks lined up to get their CDs and books signed by the dais, I took the occasion to ask the "nuns" in front of us about Patricia Neway, as I am a huge admirer of her work, and had addressed some interesting claims regarding her whereabouts this past summer. I was pleased to hear Ms. Neway is still alive and living in Vermont. The former opera singer, who turned 90 this past September, was widowed last November and is confined to a wheelchair because of arthritis, but is still quite sharp.

I wish there had been more of a discussion with these ladies, whose vivid memories of the experience of putting on the original show were observational and insightful. Sarah snapped this great photo of them. The one on the right is Bernice Saunders, who was also an alumni of the original Broadway cast of South Pacific. I know two of the other three ladies are Ceil Delli and Mimi Vondra, (and if anyone knows the name of the third, please send me an email). They told us what it was like backstage: the nun's chorus shared a large dressing room. There was a schism between the serious classical singers and the chorines. The Broadway group called themselves "The Musical Comedy Club" and were often found in their half of the dressing room playing poker during the long periods they were offstage. Ms. Neway was also running a game in her dressing room.

Walking back through midtown, I stopped in the middle of Times Square as I listened to the original cast on my iPod. I had just met some of these very voices that first brought this historic musical to life. I paused and looked at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Fifty years ago there were limousines pulling up with the great celebrities and Broadway aristocrats. On this mild evening, there was darkness. The Little Mermaid, the theatre's most previous tenant, had taken down its marquee. I resisted the brief urge to go over and write "The Sound of Music was here." Instead of committing vandalism, I came home trying to wrap my head around the sort of experience I had that afternoon. Theodore Bikel was right in his observation regarding the final word Hammerstein wrote, and taking it a step further, The Sound of Music is "forever."

2 comments:

Elisabeth said...

Thank you for writing this extensive and interesting post on the event! I'm a big fan of The Sound of Music, but I wasn't able to be there, so I was glad to see someone had written about the experience.

Duke Rightious said...

Hey Kevin!

Wow, cool time. However, I hope you re-open your "Patricia Neway" investigation, because I'd love to know who this person is in VT. We could actually wait another ninety years and not find out, because no obituary for Patricia Neway will ever emerge. Guaranteed. So I hope you can find out. I'm putting a well known head shot of Patricia Neway (I remember a box of these head shots in her studio, actually) against a pic of Frances Breeze (aka Patricia Neway). Do you really think this look alike/sound alike (who also claimed to be Patricia Neway, and stood 6 ft tall as seen in the pic) is...? I know how she and Menotti met. She told me. She told me lots of Patricia Neway things... Who is this person in VT??? Why do you think Frances Breeze was given an honorary doctorate so she could teach and head the music department at the College of William and Mary? If you can't look at the picture I post, Kevin, and IMMEDIATELY tell it is the SAME PERSON, then I'm outa my head. Zoom in even. Anyhow, I'm sure the nuns you met at the convention meant well, but I can only assume at this point, unless I see a picture of Frances's twin with them in the picture that they are only saying it to elevate their importance in that situation, because it is simply not true. who is this "Patricia Neway" of VT and does she really exist? Look at this pic: http://s764.photobucket.com/albums/xx282/dukerightious/?action=view&current=NewayAmahl1.jpg&jwidget_action=album

hope you can find out!
Duke