‘The Sound of Music’ is a pinnacle of classic musical theater. For Josh Rhodes, it was a peak experience.
“The Sound of Music” had giant talent behind it. Boasting compositions by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the musical quickly found a huge audience. It became a Broadway blockbuster, a monster-hit movie. It’s just plain big. It’s the Matterhorn of musical theater. It dominates the landscape. Almost everybody’s seen it. It’s hard not to. So, how do you find a fresh take? Josh Rhodes was determined to try. He’d loved the musical as a kid. As an adult, he realized how much he’d missed. He made up his mind to find his own way up the mountain. And do his best not to fall off.
When was your first experience of this musical?
My connection actually goes back before the movie. I fell in love with the album first. I found it in my parents’ record collection, and instantly fell in love with it. I played the LP until the needle wore through and memorized the lyrics. I loved the music — and I really loved the musical when I saw the movie adaptation on television, during the annual broadcast on NBC. At 15, I even got to participate in a stage production! I wasn’t actually in the show. I was an apprentice backstage, as part of the running crew. I played the thunder. Like the days of old-time radio, I’d rattle a sheet of metal to make the sound effect. I was really, really bad at my job, but I tried.
How did Michael Donald Edwards pitch this to you?
He just asked me what I thought about “The Sound of Music.” I told him that it’s been a favorite of mine since childhood. Then I asked for the script, to refresh myself on the stage version. I’ve seen the movie many times, but I hadn’t read it or seen it staged since I was 15. Rereading the script with an adult mind, I kept discovering new things. It’s filled with so many political ideas that were completely lost on me as a child.
I felt that the playwrights were warning us of the dangers of neutrality. The musical’s set in a time when Austria was on the precipice of a German takeover, either willingly or unwillingly. Many ordinary Austrians avoided taking sides — and lost that option after the Anschluss. The musical’s adult characters are a microcosm of that. They’re hoping the threat will blow over and trying to stay neutral until it does. To the writers, that’s a false hope, and that really rings a bell for me. Yes, the songs are uplifting, but the story deals with serious issues. That surprised me. The writers put so much passion into this. The terrible war in Europe had been over for a decade, but they still had something to say about it. It’s all about the small human choices — which side you’re on and when you have to take a stand. That’s the heart of the show, and what I wanted to open up for the audience.
“The Sound of Music” has a lighthearted, sentimental reputation. You’re saying there’s also a dark side?
Absolutely. At the top of the show, the von Trapps are a broken family. Captain von Trapp is a widower, and he’s shut down emotionally. Maria is lost. She’s an orphan, and she’s about to lose her home in the convent. Everybody has very high stakes in “The Sound of Music.” Everybody needs to be saved. That’s where the music comes in.
When your heart is in a bad place, a song can do the trick. If you look at the first act, one character is usually singing to another to lift them up. I think that’s what musicals do well — especially this one.
Are you creating new choreography?
Yes, although there’s actually very little choreography. There’s some staging for the children, and one dance number for “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” I worked with Sinai Tabak, my dance arranger, to create new arrangements based on my choreographic concepts. The kids are still jumping around on the bed for “The Lonely Goatherd” during the thunderstorm, but I’m not following the original Broadway choreography.
What did you say to the actors in rehearsals?
I asked them all to investigate this show as if they’d never seen it. “The Sound of Music” is part of our cultural library. We all think we know the characters. Maria should behave like this; the kids should do that. And there are all these cute bits from the movie we want to hold onto. Well, maybe we can let them go. Forget what you think you know and look at it with fresh eyes.
What amazing high technology did you use to re-create the Alps?
I didn’t. Our approach is actually low-tech — and I know that’s defying expectations. As a director, you feel the pressure to put the Alps on stage, so Maria and the family can literally climb the mountain at the end. But I wanted to climb a new mountain. I talked to Paul Tate dePoo, our set designer, and we came up with one big
metaphor that keeps reinventing itself. Instead of the typical mountains, we created a wall. It wraps around the stage, much like a mountain range. But it’s just an old, stone wall — a metaphorical wall that’s been painted with a mural of the Alps that’s aged, crackling and broken apart. That’s my new mountain. And it’s really the heart of my production.
Where’d you get the idea?
From the script itself — where I always get my ideas. Rereading the text, I was struck by how many times Mother Abbot tells Maria, “You cannot use these walls as a place to hide.” She says that three times. Reading that, I heard the author’s take on neutrality. And that’s where I got the concept of the metaphorical wall.
If the wall is a metaphor, what does it stand for?
It’s a perfect physicalization for the futility of neutrality. It’s a barrier, a way of shutting out the world. The wall set beautifully communicates that to the audience. You don’t feel like you’re outside in the Alps; you feel like the Alps are cradling you.
And that’s exactly the mindset of the characters. Everyone’s hiding behind walls. They’re all boxed away in their safe places, and in denial about what’s coming. The characters think they can avoid big, bold decisions. But at some point, they’ll either have to surrender to evil or climb the mountain. That gives us our big grand gesture when the characters we love climb the Alps to save themselves.
What does that salvation mean?
It means you can’t stay neutral in the face of true evil. There comes a time when you have to fight; when you have to stand up for yourself; when you have to climb a mountain. For Maria and the von Trapps, that meant the literal mountains of the Alps. But we all have mountains of our own.