Staging The Sound of Music can be an intimidating prospect. The story of a wayward nun teaching seven children to sing and finding herself in the process has become synonymous with Dame Julie Andrews and her incomparable vocal range. It’s a pop-cultural touchstone of such immense proportion you’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who hasn’t seen it multiple times. But for Joey Tremblay, director of the current NAC production, all the preconceptions and associations the public will bring to the show are actually an advantage.
“We have a great opportunity to present a familiar narrative in a completely different light,” he says. “The way the story unfolds in the script is actually quite different from the screen version, which is what most people will be familiar with. As a company we’ve largely approached the show as if it’s a new work, though obviously, there are occasional winks to the film. But it can’t be a paint-by-numbers process. We’ve had to find what’s relevant about this script in 2013.”
Based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp (a postulant who left religious life to tutor a widowed naval commander’s children and ultimately marry him), the show premiered on Broadway in 1959, marking the end of an era in the process. It was legendary musical theatre duo Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration; the latter died of cancer nine months after the premiere.
“They were really the masters of musical theatre, and this show was their peak as creators,” Tremblay says. “Each song has its own distinct style, as if they were spanning the entire genre. They were really pushing the form of musical theatre all out. Even if you know the songs, they can constantly land as fresh and revolutionary.”
Tremblay has never seen a production of the show (which he’s thankful for), though the film is one of his earliest cinematic memories. His parents took him to see it when he was a child at the part-time cinema operating out of the local legion hall in small-town Saskatchewan.
“I remember being totally blown away,” he says. “Because I was raised Catholic, one thing that really stood out was the ending where the nuns sabotage the Nazi vehicles so the family can escape. I couldn’t believe that nuns would be that devious and rebellious.”
Tremblay sees that rebellious spirit as a big part of what makes the work current and relevant. For him, Maria’s story isn’t simply a sappy celebration of the power of song to change lives. It’s a tale of staunch resistance against societal pressures.
“At the beginning, Maria feels like she’s obligated to take the path of being a nun. But weirdly enough, it’s actually the Mother Superior of her abbey who tells her she needs to follow her heart,” Tremblay says. “Deciding to stage this piece now is a similar act of resistance. It’s a very romantic show with these beautiful ideas of love, joy and being true to yourself, all those things we like to shit on in our current age of irony. To set aside all that cynicism and actually do this piece sincerely is a pretty bold statement.”