By Donalevan Maines
Jack O’Brien photo by Ari Mintz
Cast photos by Matthew Murphy
Like those gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, Houston can’t quit Jack O’Brien, I swear. The city’s romance with the rascally theater director began when he put Houston Grand Opera on the map with Porgy and Bess, which won the 1977 Tony Award for Most Innovative Production of a Revival.
After winning three Tony Awards himself for directing Hairspray, Henry IV, and The Coast of Utopia, O’Brien is back with a shocking, sensual, sexy take on The Sound of Music.
O’Brien has re-imagined the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein family musical with “what I call healthy sex,” he told me during a telephone call last month from his apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to, I don’t know, scrub it down?’
“The main story is practically Nannygate,” he explains, comparing the widowed Captain von Trapp’s interest in Maria Rainer (who becomes the governess to his seven children) to today’s salacious affairs involving powerful married men and their kids’ nannies. (Last year’s best example: Ben Affleck’s romp that was revealed in divorce papers filed by his wife, Jennifer Garner.)
“In comes this girl breathing pure air, and, of course, the captain sees her as the perfect second wife,” says O’Brien.
But to help audiences reach that racy conclusion, the director had to chop 20 years off the ages of the actors playing the main roles. (Julie Andrews was in her 30s when the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1965. When Mary Martin created the role of the virginal Maria on Broadway, O’Brien explains, she was already 46. “I was privileged to actually see Martin in the original production. . . . She was a great star, and she was giving a ‘great star’s’ performance. [However,] Maria is probably, as a postulant, no more than six or seven years older than Liesl (the ingénue). She may be many things—a country lass, a climber-of-trees, a young renegade—but she is clearly not an established star!”
He adds, “I’ve always believed Maria was a ‘star-making’ part, rather than the leading role we remember from the movies and our experience. So I went looking for someone with star-making magic. I kind of wanted a young jock, not someone hoity-toity, because Maria is a mountain girl. And in through the audition door one day walked Kerstin Anderson, still studying at Pace University in New York. She was a field-hockey player, rawboned, jocular. She opened her mouth, she sang, and she nearly made me cry.”
From hundreds of actresses who auditioned, Anderson won the coveted starring role, which is based on a real-life woman’s memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The widely known story begins with Maria continually breaking the rules while studying at an abbey to become a nun.
As the Mother Abbess, a role usually played by a woman of a certain age, O’Brien cast Ashley Brown, who turns 34 this month. “I thought, ‘What if she sees in Maria a young woman like herself?’” he explains. “So I got Mary Poppins!” (Brown played that title role when the musical version of the 1964 Walt Disney film and the P.L. Travers books opened on Broadway in 2006.) “When the Mother Abbess sings ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain,’ she understands the pull of sexuality and wants Maria to be really, really, really sure what she’s signing on for” as a nun.
O’Brien didn’t change the ages of Liesl and her heartthrob, Rolf (the messenger boy), but he says, “I think of Rolf as a rough-trade kid from the neighborhood. Instead of just a naïve baby Nazi, maybe he’s the kid your mother warned you about. When he sings to Liesl, ‘I am 17 going on 18,’ that is sort of a warning to her to ‘put your knees together, for crying out loud.’”
Besides raw sexuality, O’Brien says he also found drama in them thar hills of Austria, which was invaded by Nazis, forcing the von Trapp family to try to flee the country. “When I got the script and saw ‘1938,’” explains O’Brien, “I don’t think I ever realized that the story was set on the eve of World War II. The movie was very 1960s.”
The director was born June 18, 1939, in Saginaw, Michigan. “Growing up gay, well, it was an anomaly, for one thing,” says O’Brien. “For children in the Eisenhower era, who did you have to look toward? Liberace?”
As thrilled as he is to enjoy the advancement of gay civil rights, it’s perplexing to O’Brien to see the number of gay people who “apply a straight mentality” to their lifestyles. “Getting married and having children—whoa!” he says. “It is hard for me to believe that we went through being shunned and coming out of the closet so we could replicate what straight people do. To me, that is not what gay is at all, but I totally applaud it if that is what some people want to do.”
At 76, O’Brien says his advice is to “define who you are, whatever that is, and earn it every day.” That, he says, “is the lesson I think we were supposed to learn anyway—to vanquish that specter of fear.”
O’Brien parlayed his success with HGO’s Porgy and Bess into an extraordinarily successful career that included more than 25 years as the artistic director of the famed Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California.
However, he admits he left a piece of his heart with a former flame in Houston. (What kind of Cupid would I be if I didn’t mention this?) “I had one of my great romantic affairs in Houston, and I am still not fully over it,” O’Brien allows. “It was tumultuous, and I think it was hard on both of us, but I think it was harder on me. He’s still there. He’s a great, great guy, and I wouldn’t embarrass him for the world by saying any more. It was a huge, key moment in my life.”
Meanwhile, O’Brien says, “My dance card is filled. I have two adorable dogs. I’m a catch! But I’m a big handful, sweetheart.
“Say ‘hey’ to Houston for me,” he adds. “There is still a big chunk of it that I miss
What: The Sound of Music
When: February 16–21
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Street
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Oscars in this issue of OutSmart magazine.