The he brand new production of The Sound of Music, directed by three-time Tony Award® winner Jack O’Brien made its Indianapolis premiere Tuesday at the Old National Centre as part of a North American tour presented by Broadway in Indianapolis.
Ben Davis (Broadway’s Violet, A Little Night Music, La Bohème)plays Captain Georg von Trapp and Melody Betts plays The Mother Abbess with Merwin Foard as Max Detweiler, Teri Hansen as Elsa Schraeder, Austin Colby as Rolf and Paige Sylvester as Liesl. The von Trapp children are played by Roy Gantz (Friedrich), Ashley Brooke(Louisa), Austin Levine (Kurt), Iris Davies(Brigitta), Kyla Carter (Marta) and Anika Lore Hatch (Gretl).
Jack O’Brien’s brand new discovery, Kerstin Anderson plays Maria Rainer. Anderson, a current student at Place University won the role from hundreds who auditioned. This is her first national tour.
The Sound of Music features music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, suggested by The Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp. This new production is choreographed by Danny Mefford with music supervision by Andy Einhorn.
According to director Jack O’Brien, “The Sound of Music has been in our ears for decades, as it deserves to be. But it might be time to look once more, and more closely, at this remarkable work which, I feel, begins to reveal itself as deeper, richer, and more powerful than ever. It’s no longer ‘your mother’s’ familiar Sound of Music. We are tearing off the varnish of the past from one of the great glories of our theatergoing experience and making it fresh! This is an opportunity we’ve all longed to create!”
The Sound of Music enjoyed success as the first live television production of a musical in over 50 years when “The Sound of Music Live!” aired on NBC in December, 2013. 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the film version, which continues to be the most successful movie musical in history.
Recently I spoke by phone with Ben Davis about the show and his role as Captain von Trapp.
Where are you calling from?
We are in Wooster Mass. Just outside of Boston. I have never played this town before but I guess it is the second largest city in Massachusetts.
I understand you’re from Indianapolis.
I am. I moved to Indianapolis when I was four years old. I lived in Lawrence Township and went to elementary and middle school and then to Lawrence North for high school Then I went to Butler University. I would have graduated in 1997 but I left after my sophomore year and ended up getting cast in Les Miserables soon after so I kind of lucked out.
How did that opportunity come about?
I left school after my sophomore year because I needed to grow up. Butler is not a cheap school and I didn’t want to waste my parent’s money so I went to work at a brokerage firm at Keystone at the Crossing. My mother had been still getting me the trade paper for the performing arts in Chicago, so I saw a call for Phantom of the Opera and auditioned for that that and got called back. Six months later I got a call from the same casting director who was working for Les Mis and then got flown out to New York for another audition for Les Mis. One day at the office in Indy, they called and said, “Well, they didn’t test to see how high you can sing, so we are going to put you on the phone with the musical director and I squeaked out the note note twice. Two weeks later I was on the road with Les Mis. I toured with that show for 3 and ½ years and went to New York with it.
What song was it?
The role that they wanted me for was one of the students in the rebellion and he sings this solo high note at the top of the barricades at the beginning of Act 2 so he had me do just that phrase over and over again.
That’s a hell of a story.
Pretty funny. Pretty funny
Did you study theater at Butler?
I studied voice, actually. Steven Stolen (host of Stolen Moments on WFYI radio was my voice teacher. He’s the best. He’s one on my best friends and a mentor. He and Rob McPherson (Stolen’s husband) are two of my faves.
Did you enjoy school?
I loved studio, chorale, I loved all of those things. These are the things I love but these were things in other areas that I wasn’t dedicated to as an academic student. One should be if you are going to make your parents pay that much to go to school. It was a tough decision but everybody at Butler was incredibly supportive and they knew my education wasn’t over. It was just that I didn’t want to do it in a formal way like that.
Did you perform in community theater while in Indy?
I started late. I was a jock growing up and didn’t start theater until my junior year in high school when I got cast as Rizzo in West Side Story at Lawrence North and then from there I did Civic Theatre’s youth summer theatre where I did a couple of shows such as Into The Woods. In my senior year of high school I also did a show with Carmel Community Players.
Tell me about The Sound of Music.
Well, it all starts with Jack O’Brien who is a legendary theater director and a Broadway icon He is having a renaissance. He’s got The Front Page on Broadway right now. He is also directing Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. He has another couple of other shows that are in the works as well. His experience level is amazing. It just shows you that if you keep going, you will find work. It starts with him. Jack came in with some ideas and views on it that only he could. He comes from a Shakespeare background so his analysis of text and the way that he can look at text from different angles is more than anybody I have worked with. The show come to me because I had done a production of The Sound of Music at the Paper Mill Playhouse, which is a great regional house just outside of New York and New Jersey. The casting directors for that were casting this and they said, “We think you would be a perfect fit for this production as well.” But the way O’Brien wanted my character played is completely different from the way I played it at Paper Mill. I can’t believe I played it any other way now. It just seems a little bit more human and a lot more multi dimensional character and it makes sense. It’s done for a reason…a clear purpose for me.
Did the NBC Live! production prompt your show?
No I think the Rogers and Hammerstein Foundation came to Jack. I certainly don’t think that it hurt that the viewership for The Sound of Music who was what is was but it has just been a long time since it’s toured. It’s name recognition is fairly untouched. Most everybody knows The Sound of Music and it was time to be reimagined without it being tainted. You know what I mean? That’s what Jack has done. He’s reimagined it. We give you everything you are expecting and a lot of things that make you sit forward in your seat and I think that is what is really exciting about this production.
Was it character development? What was it exactly?
More than anything, the movie and the stage version that pre-dates the movie differ in ways. They took a lot out of the movie version. A lot has to do with the political stuff that was going on at the time…the danger and the kind of unknown of what’s going on in pre-invasion Austria in the 1930s. By putting that back in we have infused a lot of energy. The Sound of Music is like a river raft. You get on it and you sail down these nice currents and it has these songs that we all know and love and that is all fine and dandy. But there is no reason to do a tour if that is what you want to do and I think what we have done is to infuse some new energy and excitement to it.
How has the show resonated with critics and audiences in general?
This is no hyperbole. Thee reception we have gotten has been amazing. I was really dreading having to go through another Sound of Music but it’s become revelatory as far as what you can do to a piece if you can trust the material which is what O’Brien does. It is already in there. It just needed to be lifted in a new way and that is what he has done. Every night there is a standing ovation and the reviews have been really stellar. O’Brien comes at things from such interesting angles and he gives the best speeches. The man is just a breath of knowledge and experience and wit and intelligence and genius and all of these things and he is just a really inspiring guy.
How long have you been with the tour?
We have been out for about a year and four months? I started a year ago in September and I wanted to make sure I played Indianapolis. I never played my home town before. I am so excited to be able to share this show in particular. So I think I am going to stay with it We are scheduled to run until July. Five weeks at the Kennedy Center. I was going to leave before then but I think I want to finish this one out.
How many cities?
Oh, I can’t even count that far I have no idea. Each one has its distinctions.
So you have seen a great deal of the country?
Yes, just about all of it. I don’t think there is a place I haven’t been. Travelling is a by product of it. In this business, you have to be willing to go where the work is. I have been very fortunate to work a lot in New York but when you are in the business for a long time it is going to take you a lot of places and I have been very, very fortunate.
When you visit different cities, do you take advantage of the sights and sounds of wherever you are?
Always. The sights, sounds and tastes.
What can people expect when they see The Sound of Music?
I would just say that it is a great show with great music. It is just a beautiful show. You come and see a very relevant story told in a very compelling way. The sts are beautiful. The young actress playing Maria is a fantastic talent. She brings a real genuine youth to it. She is a young woman which I think just is a really great part of this production. You can’t act youth. One should never act youth. The story is about a young woman finding herself and bout a man rediscovering himself through love and through hope. It is about pride in your country and what that means and facing right vs. wrong and not taking the easy way out so I think there is a lot to be said about the show. It is not just some treacle of a show that you can sit through without thinking about something that brings a lot of joy, a lot of heart to it and it is just something I am incredibly proud to be a part of.
What about the kids?
The easiest thing about working with them is that they bring something new to the show every day it’s endemic. You can’t tune out with them because the second you do they’ll throw you something new so you don’t know what to do. It is so fantastic to have their energy on stage.
How do you like travelling with all those them?
I don’t know how the family’s do it. It’s a terrific sacrifice that the family’s make and I respect them for being able to do that so their children can pursue their dreams. Every parent has a child or a chaperone. If I was a parent I would keep my kid out there for about six months. That’s ok. Time to come home, rejoin the family and be a kid again for awhile.
What would it have been like had you started when you were younger?
I am so glad that I didn’t because I treasure what I had outside of the theater being a normal kid. I hope those experiences I had make me unique in whatever way I may be unique as an actor
Tickets for The Sound of Music are available in person at the Old National Centre Ticket Office, Clowes Memorial Hall, online at Ticketmaster.com, or by phone at 1-(800) 982-2787. Groups of 10 or more can book now by calling (317) 632-5183.