By Joseph Eastburn
I was headed to Theatre-by-the-Sea in Rhode Island. I’d gotten the part of von Trapp, or the Captain, as he was known, in The Sound of Music because I was tall, had a mature look (due to a receding hairline), and so could conceivably be a widowed former naval officer who had fathered seven children. I was twenty-nine years old, but looked forty-two. Also, I could sing, thanks to my father’s patient voice lessons, and was emotionally not unlike von Trapp, a proud, stubborn, sentimental man who hid from his own emotions by falling back on rigid, military discipline—commanding his children like he was still barking orders onboard ship. I also had a sense of humor and could fit the bill for a romantic lead, which the Captain had to be because the plot of the musical has him break off his doomed romance with the Baroness, Elsa, to fall in love with the show’s lead, the former nun, Maria, a governess who comes to his villa in Salzburg, Austria, to take care of his children—challenging his archaic disciplinary code and teaching his children to sing—thereby melting his heart. Most people remember the movie version, in which Maria was played by Julie Andrews and the Captain by a young Christopher Plummer; it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2015.
Because I grew up in northern New Jersey with parents who had met onstage in New York City—and who were themselves theater people—it was inevitable that I would have seen the original Broadway cast of The Sound of Music. It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel, as the Captain. There was a story of how, after the show had been out on the road before it opened on Broadway, Rogers and Hammerstein (and the producers) felt something was missing—namely, a song for the captain to sing. And because Bikel could play the guitar, they wrote the song “Edelweiss,” which the actor playing the Captain always sings accompanying himself on guitar. It was the last set of lyrics Oscar Hammerstein wrote before he died, and it’s a touching lullaby about an Austrian flower that a father sings to his children. Luckily, I played the guitar; not well, but enough to strum my way through that song.
I also had a connection to the original Broadway cast. As fate would have it, my father was an opera singer and through his Russian voice teacher, Vera, whose studio was off Verdi Square on the upper west side of New York City, I met—while still a high school student in 1968—Mary Susan Locke, the child actress who played Marta, the next-to-youngest von Trapp child, in that original Broadway production. In the summer of 1979, The Sound of Music was the first show of the Theatre-by-the-Sea summer stock season. I also auditioned for Cervantes in The Man of La Mancha, the second show, but didn’t get the part.
When I got there and started rehearsing—partly because of my own insecurities, and partly because of the difficulty of the role—I started having problems with the director. His name was Peter and he would eventually become the producing director of Capital Rep in Albany. Though we’d been on a friendly basis through the casting sessions, he began criticizing me during rehearsals. So, given my upbringing, I started doing passive-aggressive things to express my anger, like showing up late. Half of the company lived at the inn, a three-story, rambling stone-and-clapboard house next to the theater which housed the restaurant and cabaret on the ground floor. As the male lead, I lived in the best room on the third floor of the inn, which faced the ocean, and had a grand view of Block Island. For one rehearsal, I remember wearing tan boots as I clunked down the stairs ostentatiously late for a rehearsal. Peter confronted me in front of the full cast and said, “I think you owe everyone in this room an apology.” And apologize, I did. At the time, I didn’t know I was on my way toward the worst opening night of my brief career as an actor.
Once rehearsing “No Way to Stop It,” a humorous song sung by Elsa, the Captain (with guitar) and Max—the impresario who puts the von Trapp children onstage—we finished a run-through of the song, and I muttered, “That’s more or less it.” The actor playing Max said through his teeth, “Less.” His name was Bob, a gay man who shared a dressing room with me. In addition to doing the musical, the actors would also perform in the after-show cabaret. Bob led the entire company in a hilariously fast version of “(Ya Got) Trouble” from The Music Man, was a sweet guy, but could be wicked. Once during a cabaret rehearsal when I attempted the classic song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Bob said, “Somebody should.”
Elsa was played by Yohanna, a tall, hard-headed blond woman with a spectacular soprano voice—who eventually left the theater to become an Episcopal minister. She shocked me one night while I walked her back to the yellow house where the other half of the company lived. We were standing on a footpath under a night sky, a block from the ocean, when she said to me, “You play it safe onstage.” I just nodded because I knew she was right. But I was afraid I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew I had stage presence, had acting and vocal talent, but I didn’t have the work habits or the temperament to demand the best of myself, and wasn’t sure I ever would.
Because they were building the set on the stage of the theatre, we rehearsed in a local church, and it was during those rehearsals that we all realized that the woman who had been cast as the Mother Superior couldn’t hit the high notes in “Climb Every Mountain,” which was sung at the first-act curtain and reprised at the climax of the musical. My father always said. “Singing Rogers and Hammerstein is like climbing Mount Everest.” I’d learned that from personal experience a few years before when I’d had my heart set on playing the lead in Carousel, but couldn’t hit the F sharp in “If I Loved You,” because the approach to the note was straight up. Peter finally came up with the absurd idea that Yohanna would play both Elsa and the Mother Superior, because she could hit that “money” note. But that meant she had to make about eight costume changes, half of them in full habit.
At some point in the rehearsal process, Yohanna and I became lovers and our tempestuous affair got a little crazy. I stayed around after our show closed because she was playing Dulcinea in La Mancha, also directed by Peter. One cast member in The Sound of Music, an older man who played the Nazi commandant, befriended us. He had a house on the Narragansett River (and a bit of a crush on Yohanna, I suspect) and so let us stay with him and his wife for a week. They even gave us their master bedroom. I could never quite figure out what was going on. Did they like hanging out with theater people? Did they want a foursome? If so, it never materialized. The man was a charming older gentleman. I don’t honestly know how he and his wife put up with us. Yohanna’s purpose in life, or so it appeared, was to destroy any male ego in sight, and we were all four of us always drinking heavily. They eventually asked us to leave. It was there in that living room—when Yohanna would goad me, and I’d feel hurt inside but unable to express it, and so began to drink more—that I realized I might have a problem with alcohol.
There was one really sweet thing that happened that summer: A young actress named Maria, who played Louisa, the middle von Trapp daughter—probably about fifteen years old—decided that later in life she wanted to marry me. She even announced this in front of her parents, who turned several shades of red. She would often come by my dressing room to talk, and in front of a gaggle of cast members after a show one night, got up the courage to demand a kiss. We did indeed share a chaste kiss and got a little hurrah from the onlookers. Many years later, still living in New York, I heard that Maria had died of cancer.
During our run, the lead actor playing Cervantes in La Mancha moved into the other single bed in front room with me on the top floor of the inn. I was in the room on his opening night and watched him put on his makeup. I asked him why he wasn’t in his dressing room at the theatre. He shrugged and said he liked to prepare “alone.” He disappeared downstairs to get some ice from the kitchen then began to pour double and triple shots of scotch with soda into a plastic cup and knock them back, one after another, as he applied his makeup. He must have had fifteen drinks. I’d never seen anything like this in my life. The amount of liquor he put away would have rendered any normal person unconscious. When I watched his performance that night, he did indeed look groggy, but behaved as if it was part of his character. In truth, the guy was plastered. I asked him later why he did that, and though he didn’t really answer, I sensed he was too terrified to go onstage without being drunk.
Now to what happened on my opening night. And I was sober.
During the course of rehearsals, the director just couldn’t seem to get a performance out of me. I don’t know if I was resisting the character, if I was scared, or if the character was so like me that I was unable to embody him. I couldn’t seem to make him real. Finally a few days before we opened, Peter decided that I should overemphasize von Trapp’s military stiffness and bearing above all else to make him more of a comic character. From inside, it felt like a cartoon version of a military man, but the director liked it. He kept saying, “Now, that’s funny.”
For the last several rehearsals, as I tried to make this character change work, the orchestra arrived and the production team began to synchronize the light cues and all the other technical aspects that went into a finished show. The actors were no longer rehearsed. We would get into costume and go “cue-to-cue,” meaning, you’d come onstage, say your first line, and from the back of the house hear the director yell, “All right, now your last line, please!” and you’d exit. So, I no longer had any idea how long the actual scenes lasted, or how long I had to make costume changes. I had one particularly difficult change where the Captain is dressed in his Tyrolean outfit and has to make a quick change to full tux and tails for the party sequence. You may remember in the movie, this is the romantic scene where the Captain, in white gloves and tails, entreats the stunning young Maria to join him to dance the Landler, an austere eighteenth-century Austrian folk dance in three-quarter time that features lots of hopping and stamping. The version our choreographer gave us was simple and quite beautiful. Basically, von Trapp would take enormous strides across the stage, clapping his hands twice at the top of each stride, as Maria twirled beside him.
They gave me a dresser for this change, but because I was either overconfident, lazy, or maybe embarrassed that the dresser was a gay chorus boy—when he offered to rehearse the change—I said no. When the stage manager asked if we needed a light in that dark corner backstage, I said, “Don’t bother.” Well, as it turned out, I had very little time to exit and make the costume change, but didn’t know it.
On opening night, I went to the appointed corner in the dark, and when the dresser and I heard the party sequence music, we panicked. I lost my dress shoes in the dark, my white vest ended up on backward, my cummerbund twisted, my bow tie askew, and as the orchestra started vamping, the actress playing Maria covered for me as best she could, improvising a little swaying dance with the young actor playing my son, Fredrick. I finally appeared at the top of the staircase looking like a drunk who had just been rolled in a back alley. My hair was sticking up. With the heels of my feet not fully into my wing-tip shoes, I managed as much dignity as I could muster, came dramatically down to stage level, and danced the stately Landler with Maria, yes, with my fly down.
Admittedly, this wasn’t a tragedy, but the anguish and self-loathing I felt shook me to the core. In 1979, critics actually came on opening night. Needless to say, my reviews were withering. But you get over it. You have to go on the next night, after all, and the next. And as the show ran, I began to get better in the part and actually found the character. So many little moments happen onstage in the course of a run. There was one scene where the Captain lines his children up like a military company and makes them count off as he walks down the line, inspecting them. One night, as I strode by, the girl playing Gretl, youngest child, accidently spit chewing gum out onto the stage as she counted off. It was adorable. I remember leaning down to pick it up and glaring at her with a faux-angry twinkle. A surprising thing happened: in the heart-rending Rogers and Hammerstein universe, the actress playing Maria and I became surrogate parents to the young actors playing our children, and along with their real parents—who came to multiple performances—it began to feel like a giant, extended family.
The final scene of our production had the von Trapp family escaping the Nazis with the help of the sisters at the abbey. As the Mother Superior and the full company sang “Climb Every Mountain,” the director had the family freeze behind a scrim into a final tableau while climbing to our freedom. As the lights came down closing night, with Gretl on my shoulders, I started crying. The little girl immediately began wailing, and all the children spontaneously erupted into crying fits. At the after-party, their parents had to drag them away from us. They wept and, in a few cases, were inconsolable because they never wanted it to end.
And strangely enough, neither did I.
Copyright Eastern 2019