The Sound of Music: Keeping a Classic Fresh

ZYRUP speaks with the cast in Singapore about the challenges of performing the nearly sixty-year-old musical.
Sound of Music 3
Photo via Marina Bay Sands

An exuberant Maria, with glitter and pomp in her steps, leads the seven Von Trapp children on an excursion into the Austrian countryside, where they are taught the basics of music for the first time, with the number ‘Do-Re-Mi’. The kids march, jump and sing — there are no sharp movements or inch-perfect steps, but an unrestrained youth that shines through. For a moment they seem free, unchoreographed, truly themselves on the stage.

The Sound of Music is no stranger to Singaporean shores, having been staged here in 2014 to 70,000 audience members. From the London Palladium of the acclaimed West End, this year’s production is running from Nov 7 to Dec 3 at the Mastercard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands.

In the lead role of Maria, Carmen Pretorius is especially radiant when sharing the stage with the Von Trapp children. Stage lights follow her as she traipses around, injecting life and music into the motley crew of seven. The children perk up with every subtle movement, enthralled by her presence on stage, the rhythm of her steps, the expressions on her face. The audience members become children again, and are left in awe at the harmony of movement and sound that seems to follow Maria through the performance.

However, once Pretorius goes backstage, it becomes clear that this on stage energy and vitality is no accident. She does not mention the acting or long hours on set as being the most challenging part of the role; instead, it is the struggle of keeping her voice in top form.

Sound of Music 1
Photo via Marina Bay Sands

Noting the importance of sleep, she says she rarely has a late night out when on tour. Neither does she consume spicy food or dairy products two hours before a rehearsal or on production days. These are sacrifices that Pretorius, with her vast stage experience, is more than familiar with. The 27-year-old South African played Liesl, the oldest of the Von Trapp children, back in the 2014 production.

She adores the challenge of playing two of the leading female roles across two stagings of the production. “You get to know the production pretty well from two different angles,” she says.

If Maria is the one taking centre stage, it is the children who get her there. The role of each Von Trapp child rotates among three actors. All 18 children in this rotating cast are from Singapore, as the production casts local children from the countries they visit. They are effortless on stage, hitting all the right notes of ‘Do-Re-Mi’ with precision, their movements on stage youthful and vibrant, translating their childlike energy onto the stage with Maria the trustworthy conductor.

The children vary in their opinions on which is the toughest number to perform. “‘Do-Re-Mi’ is [the most] challenging, but it is also the most fun,” says Chloe Choo, an 11-year-old primary school student who plays Greta. Thirteen-year-old Meteo Fuentes, who plays Friedrich, finds the concert scene toughest, with the quickest change of numbers. “We have to think of the way we march […] and the different songs that are emotionally varied,” he says.

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Photo via Marina Bay Sands

While Maria and the children certainly deserve the attention they get, one of the most critical points of the musical is a compelling moment that does not center on any of them. In this scene, Mother Abbess, played by Janelle Visagie, urges Maria to return to the Von Trapp mansion to declare her love for Captain Von Trapp. Her vocals are thunderous yet reassuring in ‘Climb Every Mountain’, with the power of youth but the hint of wisdom.

Visagie talks about the challenges of acting as an older character. She is “a bit younger than [Mother Abbess] would have been, which is probably 50, 60 years old. I’m 28,” she says. According to her, covering up this age gap depends as much on the makeup as it does mannerisms. She constantly tells herself that she is the “wise old owl” in the story, and says that it’s about “getting into that mindset”.

All in all, the freshness and vitality that this production still imbues in the crowd, more than fifty years after the original staging, is pleasantly surprising.

Associate Director Frank Thompson, who had worked on a previous iteration of the musical, tells me that the production is choreographed from an actor’s perspective, and not from a dancer’s point of view. The technical aspects of dance, with its sharp movements and split second accuracy, are not a feature of this production. “We try and let people discover the different words, the texts, the space,” he says. “It keeps it fresh for me, and also for the actors.”

It is no wonder then, that The Sound of Music retains an uncanny spirit of adventure. As Maria leads the children into the Austrian countryside, we, too, are in on the journey, one filled with laughter and joy, heartbreak and fear, with a tinge of nostalgia yet something new to uncover with every viewing. The songs resonate with the child in us, while the children on stage and the lively cast shows us the potential for an age-old production to touch a modern audience.

“That’s the beauty of live theatre,” says Pretorius. “You can’t help but keep it fresh.”

The Sound of Music is showing at the Mastercard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands until Dec 3. Tickets are available from Sistic.