Nearly everyone knows “The Sound of Music.” Just not as well as they thought.
Most people are familiar with the 1965 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. A Christmastime television staple, it’s the loosely-based-on-life story of Maria, a nun who becomes governess to the seven children of Georg von Trapp, an Austrian naval officer, immediately before the 1938 Nazi annexation of the country. Maria and the captain fall in love, a fact complicated by his engagement to another woman, Elsa. In the movie, Elsa is very nearly a villain, a wealthy widow who plans to ship the children off to boarding school once she gets her claws into the captain.
“The average lover of ‘The Sound of Music,’ which is basically the whole world, is inclined to have a less than favorable feeling about Elsa just because she is the conflict in the romance,” says Teri Hansen, who plays Elsa in a new production of “The Sound of Music,” at the Kennedy Center for the next month. However, “anyone who thinks Elsa is a villain is … inaccurate.”
This touring production, directed by Jack O’Brien, places more emphasis on the political realities of the time; eventually, those realities are what cause the relationship between Georg and Elsa to end. Their main argument comes to a head in the second-act song “No Way to Stop It,” which Elsa sings with the like-minded concert promoter Max. (Both of the songs Elsa appears in were cut from the movie version; Hansen says when she begins to sing, “many times the audience is saying, ‘Wait, what?’ ” because they’re used to a non-singing character.)
“This is a real political song about compromising,” Hansen says of the captain’s refusal to accept a command as a Nazi naval officer. “It’s an argument that is at the crux of Elsa’s decision to leave the captain. It really has nothing to do with Maria and all to do with the political atmosphere and the fact that he is unwilling to compromise in any way. He just won’t do it. These are sort of the sharper angles that were not present in the film.”
Even her costumes represent Elsa’s drive to keep her head down and out of trouble. Two of her three outfits were inspired by the work of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, designers who worked in Nazi-occupied France.
“These are two women who, much like Elsa, were trying to find a way to survive during an occupation,” Hansen says. “These are dangerous times. [Elsa] is an unmarried woman, a woman of means, and trying to shore up her position with the Nazis at the door.”
That doesn’t mean the outfits are entirely political — they help with another moment, too. In her final scene with Georg, “everyone thinks that he’s leaving her, but she’s the one who leaves him,” Hansen says. “And the [production’s] fabulous costume designer, Jane Greenwood, said, ‘When you leave a man, you have to look fabulous.’ ”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through July 16, $49-$169.