Basalt’s hills come alive with ‘The Sound of Music’
July 30, 2009
BASALT – It’s the day before opening night of Jayne Gottlieb Productions’ biggest, most ambitious production yet, and one of the actors is having some troubles. His mom isn’t at the rehearsal, he can’t get in touch with his father, his water bottle is empty, and he isn’t feeling well. Repeatedly he trots from the stage area in Basalt’s Arbaney Park to the tiny tent where Gottlieb, the company’s namesake director, producer and choreographer, is consulting with her music director Corey Simpson; fielding questions about schedules and sound; looking at the skies for hints of the weather ahead and what it promises for the open-air production; and trying to answer an interviewers’ questions.
But Gottlieb barely skips a beat with her cast member. She assures the young man that there is plenty of water backstage as well as a first-aid kit, that a parent will be found, that he can head home if necessary. And she scoots him off to one of the team of volunteers who has come out to assist in a myriad of ways.
There are some 85 cast members in Jayne Gottlieb’s current production of “The Sound of Music,” which opens Thursday and runs through Sunday in Basalt’s Arbaney Park. Fortunately, there are a similar number of people pitching in to pull it off.
“About every single one of their parents is helping out,” said Gottlieb. “That’s important. We need all of them to set this up out here.” Gottlieb needed only to glance up for a moment to begin a list of the tasks – outside of actually directing the play – that needed to be handled: Donating trash cans, sewing costumes, making goat ears, providing snacks for everyone, battening down the hatches when the wind comes in, building sets, first aid.
Gottlieb has assembled a core team of four paid staff members for “The Sound of Music.” There is her steady music director, Corey Simpson, whose tasks included recording a 16-instrument score for the show – and transposing the key for some 80 percent of the music, the better to fit kids’ voices. Logan Walters, who happened to direct children’s theater in Los Angeles before moving to Carbondale two years ago to teach drama and speech, is in charge of coaching the actors and directing scenes. Carolin Golbus, who has two children in the show, serves as assistant director and assistant choreographer. Heading the team is the 30-year-old Gottlieb, a former performer at Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater and former musical theater kid herself, who founded her namesake company in Basalt in 2005, and has staged a handful of kids’ musicals each year since.
While Gottlieb asks much of her actors and their parents to pull off her productions, there is another set of participants who have asked Gottlieb to let them make a vital contribution. It is a group of older kids – regulars in Gottlieb Productions’ shows, most of whom appeared in the company’s recent staging of “Evita” – who are looking for a more in-depth theater experience. The 10 young assistants, age 12-15, are expected every day at rehearsal, where they carry clipboards and take charge of the “Sound of Music” cast, which ranges in age from 5-14.
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For their commitment, the young assistants are given jobs more visible than handing out snacks and supervising costume changes. Gottlieb occasionally hands them creative tasks like choreography. “They like me saying, ‘Take four counts of eight, and go make up what the goats are going to do; here’s the music,'” said Gottlieb, referring to the “Lonely Goatherd” scene. “And they go and do it.”
Gottlieb has become known for treating her actors almost like professionals, for coaxing outstanding performances out of her troupe, and for letting the children reap the rewards of a job well done. “To work hard for something, and give up other things, and then to have everyone else come up and tell you how good it was – it’s a great feeling for a kid, to have everyone tell you you’re doing great,” she said in a 2007 interview with The Aspen Times. That applies no less to her young assistants.
“We throw it at them,” she said. “We don’t do any preparation. They’re kind of used to making it up. They just kind of stepped in, without me asking. They like being here. And the little ones really respect them. They came and saw them in ‘Evita'” – which was for kids age 10 and up – “so they got to see them as actors also.”
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For “The Sound of Music,” Gottlieb truly has needed all the help she could get. Apart from her biggest cast ever, she decided to return to Basalt’s Arbaney Park for the first time since 2006. The great outdoors provides its own set of challenges, most of which the company has faced over the last few days: wind, rain, hail. And there is the threat of having to move, in as little as an hour’s notice, indoors, to the Basalt Middle School auditorium. As Simpson, the music director, notes, “Outdoors is a whole different experience.”
But Gottlieb, who has staged her productions in Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village, and at the Basalt Middle School, figures it is worth it to go outside. It was the production of “The Wizard of Oz,” in Arbaney Park, that put the company on the map. Even though rain interfered some with that run, Gottlieb sees “The Wizard of Oz,” their first outdoors show, as a turning point.
“It was something that a lot of people saw,” she said. “It was the first time we had a huge audience. So many people saw that show, loved it outside, saw the quality of the production. And a lot of kids saw the production and wanted to be in it.”
Being at the foot of the mountains has a particular resonance with “The Sound of Music.” The Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece – about the von Trapp family; the governess, Maria, who comes to stay with them; and their defiance of the Nazis – is set directly in the Austrian Alps, and the mountains are virtually a character in the story. Gottlieb’s production, like her “Wizard of Oz,” makes extensive use of the setting (even if the show doesn’t end with the von Trapps climbing Basalt Mountain, which would echo perfectly the closing scene in the film version).
If the biggest challenges are logistical, right beneath those is the problem of audience expectations. “The Sound of Music” is among the most popular musicals ever; the list of songs includes such standards as “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and “Edelweiss,” which will be presented as a sing-along. The 1965 film earned an Oscar for Best Picture. And it is a musical that seems to be have been handed down through the generations with little loss of relevance. Most everyone knows “The Sound of Music” – which could raise expectations as well as attendance.
“The challenge is, everyone knows this material. They’ve seen it a hundred times,” said Simpson, who recalls, as a 6-year-old, watching a Minneapolis production of “The Sound of Music” that featured his mother on drums. “We have to live up to that. We want everyone to leave having that great experience of ‘The Sound of Music’ that they remember from their past.”
Gottlieb was determined that her children’s production of the musical wouldn’t stray far from the version that includes the ominous presence of the Third Reich. The script she got from her mentor ended with Rolf, the young Nazi soldier, deciding not to blow the whistle on the von Trapp family – a significant departure from the original story. Gottlieb thought it important to leave the Nazi threat intact, and that her cast would benefit from it.
“We could have downplayed the Nazi stuff and made it a real kids’ show,” said Gottlieb, who spent time talking with the cast about the issues raised by “The Sound of Music.” “But I thought, that’s the whole story – that the politics of the time really overcame young love and family, in the case of Rolf. I think they’re able to relate, through their emotions, to how government and history and horrible leaders can affect people. Which is a whole different experience than reading from a textbook.”