‘The Sound of Music Live’


How do you solve a problem like Maria, that chipper almost-nun turned nanny who saves a broken family and outwits the Nazis? Not only is she based on an actual person, but she’s a star turn requiring killer vocals and unlimited amounts of charm and pluck. If these demands weren’t enough, anyone who plays her must live in the shadow of two indelible portrayals: Julie Andrews in the film, and to a lesser extent, Mary Martin in the original stage production. It’s a tough gig that invites comparisons and stirs up quite a lot of nostalgic emotion. NBC took a huge risk last night, dedicating its entire primetime slot to a live performance of the original stage version of the show (book by Lindsay & Crouse). Billed as The Sound of Music Live!, the telecast did have a major problem with Maria. While it wasn’t quite a success, it was definitely worth the effort.

Some history: the musical wouldn’t exist without Mary Martin, the Texas gal turned beloved Broadway icon. She owned the rights to the story and approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to supply a few songs for a play, and they in turn offered to make it a musical. The Sound of Music premiered in 1959 (ten years after the trio experienced a major hit with South Pacific). Incidentally, the show has never been much of a critical favorite, with both the original production and film receiving mixed notices. But it didn’t matter, the show has belonged to the audience since its first performance.

Martin played Maria to standing room crowds for almost two years. She never missed a performance, not even when she filmed her iconic Peter Pan in 1960. That Martin, 45 going on 46 and already a grandmother, was probably too old to play a young postulant didn’t register with critics and audiences. Mary Martin radiated perpetual youthfulness, charm and love from the stage, and that star quality was enough to make the crowds suspend their disbelief. She was surrounded by great talent, including Theodore Bikel as the Captain, and most notably the dignified, Tony-winning dramatic soprano Patricia Neway as the Reverend Mother (Neway was actually six years younger than Mary). The show was the biggest hit of the season and won the Best Musical Tony over Gypsy (in a tie with Fiorello!). Martin received her third Tony as Maria, besting Ethel Merman’s iconic Rose. Florence Henderson headlined the national tour. Meanwhile, in London, the musical opened without an established star and became the longest running show in West End history. The show itself had become the attraction.

For the 1965 film, screenwriter Ernest Lehman smoothed out the narrative and added some conflict to the relationship between Maria and the kids, and also found better placement for some of the songs. Two sophisticated songs for Max and Elsa were dropped. One of Lehman’s more curious choices was to make Elsa a Baroness, stripping her of her political opinions and CEO status, while setting her up as a romantic villain, which was not how she was portrayed in the original production. Rodgers added two new songs (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”) to help flesh out Maria. Because of its overwhelming popularity, this film has become what most people expect when they see the musical onstage. The 1981 London revival starring Petula Clark was the first to incorporate material from the film, and other productions have followed suit, including the 1998 Broadway and 2006 London revivals.

As for NBC’s mixed bag telecast, the easiest and most obvious target for criticism is Carrie Underwood, as the entire event was built around her. Ms. Underwood, an American Idol alum and country star, has a great voice, but is severely lacking in acting ability. As I watched the show, I noticed the dichotomy between her singing and speaking. She became increasingly relaxed in her singing, but displayed a jarring disconnect with the dialogue. She just seemed to say words, without registering any emotion or feeling. At first I thought Ms. Underwood was a poor choice for Maria, but as the evening progressed I started to think Maria was a poor choice for Ms. Underwood. She probably would have been better served by Annie Get Your Gun, or some similar show that would play to her strengths and personality.

Ultimately, what Underwood needed was strong direction and she didn’t get that from either Rob Ashford or Beth McCarthy-Miller. Ashford has been assigned many classic musicals but has a perilous tendency to not trust the material. His choreography is quite often all style and very little substance. Case in point: the teenagers in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” doing a spirited polka through a wooden hillside. I suppose I should just be grateful he didn’t have nuns hitch kicking around the abbey for no reason. What was presented on TV was merely blocking, with far too many intrusive commercial breaks. Issues with pacing and timing were rampant, even marring those scenes dominated by the Broadway stalwarts.

Audra McDonald’s Abbess was very good and her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was the musical apex of the evening, but while she had the grace she lacked the gravitas, and only felt like an authentic Mother Superior in her scenes alone with Underwood. All other times, she felt more like the popular nun as opposed to the head nun. The best performance of the night came from Laura Benanti as Elsa. In many ways, the character is far more fascinating in her politicized role onstage, representing those who chose ambivalent appeasement while Hitler took power. Benanti looked like a million dollars, sang like a dream, and her realization that the relationship was over during the last line of “No Way to Stop It” was the finest piece of acting of the night. (It’s also worth noting that Ms. Benanti was social media’s favorite: her name trended *worldwide* on Twitter for five hours). The cast album is worth getting just for these two ladies.

My quibbles aside, I was glad to see a three hour musical presented live on network television. I want to see more presentations like this. I applaud the risk, which seems to have paid off for NBC in press and especially in the ratings. While it ultimately fell short of expectations, it’s certainly worth another try. And I hope whatever it is, it stars Laura Benanti.

“The Sound of Music” – Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall presented the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music on Tuesday evening as a gala fundraiser for the venue. In previous years, the Hall has presented similar concerts of Carousel and South Pacific. While this evening’s presentation of the score was not as memorable as those two previous outings (that Carousel wasn’t recorded is simply a crime – it was a dazzling success), it was a pleasure hearing those gorgeous songs performed live with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Inspired by actual events, The Sound of Music was originally a stage vehicle for Mary Martin and later a blockbuster film starring Julie Andrews. It tells the story of a young postulant who becomes governess to seven children under the stern command of their Naval officer father. Throw in some feisty nuns and some evil Nazis and you’ve got the ingredients for a spectacular audience favorite.

The orchestrations in the program are credited solely to Robert Russell Bennett, but there were several pieces that sounded like Irwin Kostal’s arrangements for the film, including main title which was used as an overture for the evening (the stage show begins promptly with the haunting “Preludium”), “Do-Re-Mi” and the lower key version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” I was pleasantly surprised to see the score presented in its original 1959 order. Maria and the Mother Abbess shared “My Favorite Things” in the Abbey, while Maria sang “The Lonely Goatherd” during the thunderstorm, etc. For the concert, “I Have Confidence” was added and “Something Good” replaced “An Ordinary Couple.”

Laura Osnes made for a sweet if somewhat bland Maria, singing well but without the spark that has made others so indelible in the role. Tony Goldwyn was a vocally weak and colorless Captain. Met Opera mezzo and fan favorite Stephanie Blythe gave the evening’s master class in singing, with a stirring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Brooke Shields couldn’t quite handle the vocal demands of Elsa, but carried herself with grace and glamour, earning exit applause. (Fans of the film may be surprised how much more politicized and nicer the character is on stage). Patrick Page practically purred his way through Max’s lines. Veanne Cox, Cotter Smith and Reed Birney were on hand for smaller roles, while Daniel Truhitte, Nicholas Hammand, Kym Karath and Heather Menzies (of the film) made brief cameos. Special mention to the Women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir, who supplied breathtaking renditions of the liturgical music in the show.

Gary Griffin staged the concert (performed completely off-book), but while the evening was well-paced, the energy was inconsistent. David Ives provided the concert adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s original book, which didn’t make much of a case for a full-fledged revival. Joshua Bergasse provided the small amounts of choreography seen throughout the evening, most notably the “Laendler.” A misstep was using projections of Austrian pictures and site specific locales from the film against the back wall of the Stern Auditorium’s stage. These pictures, presented in a sort of widescreen panorama distracted from the performers. The cast wore concert attire that suggested at character; the only dirndls to be found were those audience devotees who dressed up.

Patricia Neway (1919-2012)

Patricia Neway - Lady M

Operatic soprano and Tony-winner Patricia Neway, best known for her associations with Gian Carlo Menotti and Rodgers and Hammerstein, died peacefully in her home in Corinth, Vermont on January 24, 2012 of natural causes. Ms. Neway was 92.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1919, Neway studied at the Mannes College of Music, making her professional debut in the Broadway chorus of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne in 1942. Her first leading role in an opera came courtesy of a 1942 production of Cosi fan Tutti with the Chautauqua Opera. Neway performed regularly with the NYCO from 1951-1966, making her debut in the world premiere of Tamkin’s The Dybbuk and originating The Mother in Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (opposite Beverly Sills). The soprano was featured soloist of the Opera Comique in Paris from 1952-54, singing Tosca and Katherina Mihaylovna in Risurrezione, as well as principal singer in the first two seasons of the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.

A self-proclaimed hybrid, Ms. Neway famously helped Menotti bring opera to Broadway. She created a sensation as Magda Sorel in the Pulitzer Prize winning original Broadway production of The Consul, in which she stopped the show with the climactic aria “To This We’ve Come.”  She would go onto sing the role in the opera’s London and Paris premieres, and later recreated the role for television in 1960. Her association with Menotti continued as the Mother in Maria Golovin, a role she premiered in Brussels in 1957, which she later played on Broadway and with the NYCO. Neway also appeared in NYCO productions of The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Most notably, Ms. Neway originated the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music opposite star Mary Martin, introducing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to the public. She won the Best Featured Actress Tony for her efforts. In the 1960s, her association with Rodgers and Hammerstein continued with revivals of The King and I (Lady Thiang) at Lincoln Center and Carousel (Nettie Fowler) at the City Center. Neway also appeared in a 1967 TV version of the latter starring Robert Goulet. (I’m not one hundred percent positive, but I think Ms. Neway is the only person to have played these three roles in major NY productions).

The dramatic soprano retired to Corinth, VT where she lived with her husband John Francis Byrne, who passed away in 2008. Speaking with Ms. Neway’s niece today, I learned that the soprano enjoyed her life immensely, from the success of her career to the privacy of her retirement.  On February 25, Vermont Public Radio will be live streaming a retrospective on the soprano’s career.

DVR Reminder: “The Sound of Music” cast on Oprah

For the first time in my life, my father and I will be tuning into Oprah tomorrow afternoon. Why? To check out her hour-long reunion special for The Sound of Music. In honor of the show’s 45th anniversary there has been the theatrical reissue of the film and other events like this TV appearance which will culminate in the November 2 Blu-ray release of the film. A special 45th anniversary edition of the soundtrack will also be released.

There have been various reunions and retrospectives every five years or so, with requisite talk show appearances. Stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer will be joined by Charmian Carr (“Liesl”), Nicholas Hammond (“Friedrich”), Heather Menzies-Urich (“Louisa”), Duane Chase (“Kurt”), Angela Cartwright (“Brigitta”), Debbie Turner (“Marta”) and Kym Karath (“Gretl”). It marks the first time that all nine actors have been reunited since the film’s release in 1965. They will be talking about memories of the film and its impact on the world and their lives, among other anecdotes. (I have to admit, I’m  quite curious how Eleanor Parker is doing and what she thinks about the film’s iconic status).

The episode was originally scheduled for Friday, October 29, but that has since been changed to Thursday, October 28 (tomorrow). Be sure to check your local listings to find out when the episode will be airing.

Win a pair of tickets to see “The Sound of Music” on the big screen

I’m excited to announce my blog’s first ever giveaway! The Sound of Music has turned 45 with a new high definition print and the Blu-ray release on November 2. The perennial classic will return to movie theatres across the country in the first national reissue since 1973. I’ll be heading to one of the 500 theatres for the screening, which includes a sing-along version of the film as well as a pre-film featurette And I’ll Sing Once More, narrated by Rebecca Luker (who played Maria in the 1998 Broadway revival) and features new interviews with Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers.

There will be two separate screenings: Tuesday, October 19 & Tuesday, October 26. I am pleased to announce that I have a pair of tickets to the Oct. 26 screening to give away. (This is all very new to me and quite exciting!)

Two ways in which to enter:

1. Comment on the post below or,

2. Follow me on Twitter (@kevinddaly) and retweet anything I post related to the The Sound of Music contest.

One winner be selected at random when the contest ends (Sunday night at midnight). Two entries allowed per person; one via each method. Any additional entries will lead to disqualification. If you choose to enter via twitter, I need you to follow so I can direct message you. I will notify the winner Monday morning; tickets will be mailed directly to the individual.

For more information, you can visit The Sound of Music 45th Anniversary website. For a list of participating theatres and tickets, check out the Fathom Events website.

Film: “The Sound of Music” turns 45

Remember 2005? There was a lot of hullabaloo over the 75th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, Spamalot somehow bested three superior shows for Best Musical at the Tonys. Meanwhile, the film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, Oklahoma! and the iconic The Sound of Music were celebrating their 60th, 50th and 40th anniversaries, respectively. Special 2 disc editions of the films with never-before-seen features and footage were released and there requisite press appearances by the various cast members who are still with us. It’s hard to believe five years have passed and like any good American institution, it’s time to celebrate another landmark anniversary with style.

Now as The Sound of Music hits its 45th year, 20th Century Fox and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization have taken it up themselves to celebrate with the latest in digital video technology: Blu-ray. A brand-spanking new edition of the film, newly restored and remastered for high definition is being rolled out in early November. There have been some glimpses into the process and the film looks better than ever. The film is more than just a blockbuster; it is a cultural phenomenon. While it was a big hit in its 1959 stage incarnation, the movie took off into the stratosphere upon the release in 1965. The Sound of Music won five Oscars including Best Picture and made a mountain of money – in terms of grosses adjusted for inflation, it ranks third behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars on the all-time list. The movie ran for several years in its first release and continues to grow in popularity. And like many others around the world, I hold a special place for the film.

Ever since I can remember, there was an annual airing of the film around Easter. The first time I was introduced to it, I was genuinely surprised to see Mary Poppins dressed down as a blonde tomboy twirling in the Austrian alps. (I was about four years old).  As a very young child, I wasn’t allowed to stay up for the whole thing (it was a Sunday airing and there was school the next day). In fact, it wasn’t until I was almost ten I even knew the Captain and Maria even got married! But every year, I got to see a little more and a little more of the film until I eventually saw it all. I was even given a souvenir program from the initial engagement. When I was in 8th grade, there was a big to-do over a new VHS edition remastered by George Lucas’ THX which placed the 175 minute musical epic on one video cassette for the first time. I still have that copy. The first DVD I ever bought was – surprise, surprise – The Sound of Music. I have the soundtrack on LP as well as three CD editions. I even upgraded to that 40th anniversary DVD edition. I’ve kept them all.

Part of the reason is my father. He’s not someone that’s really into the movies or theatre, but he loves The Sound of Music. He saw it when it first came out and for some reason it just clicked with him. In fact, his first date with my mother was to the 1973 theatrical reissue, the last time the film was given a nationwide release. Twenty-three years later, we went to Salzburg, Austria to look at real locations from the Trapp family’s life, as well as those locations used in the film. We were inside the Nonnberg Abbey, visited the Mirabell Gardens (where the “Do-Re-Mi” finale was shot), plus two of the three houses used as exteriors as well as the actual Trapp villa (which is lovely). But I was also struck with the extraordinary beauty of the city; it is a place I really want to revisit again sooner rather than later.

To coincide with this celebratory DVD/Blu-Ray release, R&H and Fox have planned a series of events, including an entire episode of Oprah dedicated to the film, which will air on October 29 (check local listings!) My father asked when that was happening; I’m not even sure he knows who Oprah is. And I’m not being facetious but that’s the sort of pull this film has with him. However, the event that has me most excited is the upcoming theatrical re-release of the film. On October 19 & 26 (which are both Tuesdays) the film will be shown at 6:30PM. Click here to purchase tickets and to find the location nearest you.  It’s not very often that a classic film buff like myself gets the opportunity to see one of his favorites on the big screen. Just that itself is enough reason to rejoice. Ultimately the restored and remastered film will be released in both a Blu-Ray/DVD combo and a limited collector’s edition box set, as well a new reissue of the soundtrack on November 2.

A Trip to the Library

Over the past couple of weeks I have been going through the house and sorting out the debris of my life. There are a lot of memories ensconced within my three rooms, and felt the need to organize it. While shuffling through some papers and sheet music, a CD fell out from the pile. It was the second cast album of Kiss of the Spider Woman with Vanessa William, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Howard McGillin. I had borrowed it from the local library about five or six years ago and had lost it. The thing was, I had gone back to college and someone else in the family was going to return it for me. Well, that didn’t happen and I ended up paying $20 for it, in spite of the fact it was nowhere to be found.

Anyway, I was so surprised to see this and decided that I should return it. I checked the library system online and they had even removed its listing. In the years since, I had acquired a cheap copy of the recording for myself and felt it would be better served back in their catalog. Suddenly I got excited at the idea of going to the library. I hadn’t used it in a long time since I spent so much time working at Barnes and Noble, and really didn’t need. I have a lot of books and was able to borrow hardcovers from the store.

I’m an unabashed book nerd; I was legitimately excited by the prospect of using the library again. So here I was back in the building and after filling out the necessary paperwork, I had a brand new library card (my old one was lost somewhere… three days after this trip during more sorting and organization that also fell out of a pile). I felt it most necessary to inaugurate the card while I was there. I went up to the theatre arts section on the second floor, where I made frequent trips during high school and embarked on my musical theatre studies.

I checked out two books: Rodgers and Hammerstein by Ethan Mordden and Mainly on Directing by Arthur Laurents.

The former is one I’ve read cover to cover several times; I am tempted to pick up my own copy. It’s a coffee table sized book which has the added bonus of generous history and criticism of the entire R&H canon. There are copious amounts of photographs, both color and black & white interspersed throughout. Captions abound. I don’t necessarily agree with Mordden on some of his theories, but I do find it fun to read what he has to say about every work from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, including comments on their film and television projects. For some reason the book is out of print, but there are used copies available on amazon, and it is one to remember.

Laurents’ book focuses on his career as a director. The first chapter is devoted to his immense dislike for the 2003 revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters. The star emerges unscathed, but there are very few kind words for director Sam Mendes. The majority of the book is devoted to his direction of the Patti LuPone Gypsy reviewing the course of the show from the City Center to Broadway. The general feeling I get as I read is that Laurents feels he’s the only one can direct any of the works he has written. He takes the usual swipes at Merman and Robbins, for whom he had little love in his memoir Original Story By. But this time there are a couple of pointed digs at Sondheim as well. The writer-director also talks La Cage Aux Folles (and again, no love lost on the revival) and his dislike of drag and how he came to rediscover West Side Story He also claims it to be about love; the book came as a tribute to his late partner, Tom Hatcher. However, the only love to be found in the text, which makes for an interesting read, is for Hatcher.

So I’m off to a solid start; there are a lot of theatre books I want to reread and others which I have yet to pick up. Mordden’s series on musical theatre decade by decade, William Goldman’s The Season, among others. But first? I assuage my ladies of the DLS/HWS with a quartet of Dorothy L. Sayers books.

Any suggestions as to what I should read…?

"Shall We Dance?"

It took me until I was in high school to learn that the Gershwins had written a classic song with this very title, but for me whenever I hear those three words, I always think of The King and I. My introduction to the piece came in early 1995 when I saw the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Up until that point I had no idea Rodgers and Hammerstein did anything other than The Sound of Music and South Pacific. But as a result of this discovery, I started to take special notice of Rodgers & Hammerstein; that same year The Sound of Movies documentary aired on A&E and read Ethan Mordden’s comprehensive coffee table book Rodgers & Hammerstein ad nauseam. It could be argued that that was the creation of this encyclopedic monster known as me.

Looking back, I was staying with a friend for a weekend off school, and our classmate and friend lived next door to him and brought the film with her. She had picked it up, and with little resistance we decided we’d watch too. There we were, three 12 year olds watching The King and I in my friend’s living room. (Once an old soul, always an old soul…)

It was my introduction to Deborah Kerr. I was watching the film and thought, “Who is this gorgeous redhead and how have I never heard of her before?” Checking out the box, I made special note of her name and proceeded to watch as many of her films as possible. I had already seen Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, and found I liked him much better here. Little did I realize at this time just how iconic his performance was. (Brynner played the role 4, 525 times; he appeared as the King onstage, onscreen and in a short-lived TV series. He won two Tonys and an Oscar for his performance). I enjoyed the score, the story and impressive CinemaScope and Deluxe color (such vibrant art direction, costumes and cinematography, it was such a feast for the eyes). There was Rita Moreno as a doomed Burmese “present” and the little kid from All Mine to Give (Rex Thompson) as Anna’s son.

When the film aired on the Family Channel, I popped in a cassette and wore that out. The TV print was lackluster; color was unimpressive and a few shots had been snipped out for whatever reason. But it was still The King and I. I upgraded to the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection VHS and purchased the soundtrack LP (and have since upgraded to the comprehensive 2-disc DVD and the special edition CD). I have ten recordings of the score, but this particular one though not the most complete, always remains my sentimental favorite.

The film is easily the best of all Rodgers and Hammerstein stage to screen adaptations, with an explicit attention to capturing the magic of the stage show. Though I miss the soliloquy “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed,” the cinematic treatment is resplendent. Kerr, who had no musical experience, worked diligently with the young singer who was going to dub her voice. That person was Marni Nixon, who would go onto a successful career in Hollywood voicing many soprano heroines. The combination of Kerr and Nixon is the best vocal dubbing of any screen actress on film; so successful they were reunited a year later on An Affair to Remember.

But it was “Shall We Dance?” where I really became enraptured. We were all so blown away that one of us reached for the remote as soon as the film was over and watched the musical number over and over again. Throughout the plot Anna and the King have been at odds with one another, with their West vs. East culture clash. However, in Hammerstein’s treatment of the story (based on a heavily fictionalized myth of Anna Leonowens) there is a great deal of chemistry between the pair, which culminates in this particular moment. The back and forth, and the success of their mission to impress the British emissary (and thus save Siam from becoming a protectorate of the Empire) comes to a head as they discuss the idea of a man dancing with a woman (who is not her husband).

In a musical where the two main characters never share anything explicitly romantic, the simple act of dancing a polka with one another becomes, in effect, a consummation of their unspoken feelings for one another. The King becomes playful and flirtatious, they reach a sort of understanding between the two and never is that attraction stronger than the moment when he places his hand on her waist to literally sweep her off her feet. Whenever I’ve seen this live in performance, it has never failed to receive applause. (I used to sell the number to people by saying, “It’s the sex.”) Take unspoken emotions, add subtext, music and dance, and you transcend all.

When I was in college, I was a TA for the American Musical Theatre course for several years. One of the things I enjoyed was when the professor allowed me to either guest lecture in his stead, or to choose various clips for discussion. I was given the choice of eleven o’clock numbers, and I made sure to include this among the three clips (the other two were Bernadette’s “Rose’s Turn” and the 1992 Guys and Dolls “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”). I still recall that Shall We Dance?” seemed to generate the most responses by the students in the classroom. And if I ever teach a musical theatre class again, you can bet that I’m going to include this clip.

In the meanwhile, here’s “Shall We Dance?”


Leave it to Sesame Street and their brilliant writers to come up with this gem. While perusing the Youtube for the clip above, I came across this one. Here’s Monsterpiece Theater and host Alistair Cookie presenting The King and I, starring Grover:

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.”