Hillsdale College alumni, staff, faculty members and their families were among those who took the stage earlier this month in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” presented at the Sauk Theater in Jonesville.
Sauk Executive Director Trinity Byrd has directed the musical for Sauk three times now with Music Director Christy Gauche. He said that this time he tried to emphasize the theme of political tension in the story.
According to Byrd, this production was made effective by the outstanding cast, which includes over 25 actors making their Sauk debut.
“Every character is strong from the female lead to the guys who don’t say a word,” Bird said. “I think that’s important. Everyone just comes in and gives 100 percent.”
More than 15 members of the college community were involved in the production.
“We have a lot of college employees and alumni, a lot of people who maybe just graduated and haven’t left Hillsdale yet,” Byrd said.
Although the production was originally slated for the 2020 Sauk season, the show was pushed back several times, with auditions taking place in August of this year. After only a few weeks of rehearsals, the show opened on October 12th to a full house and ran until October 22nd.
Sauk musicals typically draw actors from the college community, but Byrd said this show drew an unusual number of families.
“It’s really fun for me to watch them look at each other,” Byrd said. “I can’t remember a show in my 25 years here that has had so many family groups.”
Benjamin Springer, son of Hillsdale College Creative Director Bryan Springer ’94, played the role of Friedrich von Trapp alongside his sister Berdie, who played Liesel von Trapp.
Springer said he had fun playing the part and performing with his sister, but the sibling dynamic didn’t stop on stage.
“She usually always gets me to do whatever I need to do,” Springer said.
Alumna Kris Johnson ’08, wife of Assistant Instructor of Music Aaron Johnson, played a nun in the ensemble, while her 7-year-old daughter Olive made her debut as Gretl Von Trapp.
“I know what she’s like at home and her personality, so it’s interesting to see a different personality for Olive when she comes here,” Johnson said, “She’s a much more poised and polished little person than she is at home.”
For some, like host Janna Green ’17, the musical was a glimpse into what family life with children is like. Green said that working with children reminds her to look at theater from a new perspective.
“It’s been so nice to get to know them and enjoy watching them do theater, sometimes for the first time, and seeing how they bring their joy and childlike innocence and wonder to a performance,” she said.
Jessica Franklin, an interviewer at the admissions and husband of associate professor of English Kelly Franklin, said the commitment of the rehearsal was difficult because it sometimes took her away from her family, but it was worth it for the performance itself.
“It’s been a lot of work for me up until this point, but to finally be able to perform and give this gift to the audience has been a really exciting experience,” she said. “The first night, when I first went on stage with my fellow sisters and we were getting ready to sing one of my favorite songs, I actually started to cry. I was just touched that I got to be a part of creating this beauty and give it to the community here.”
According to Byrd, the musical’s themes of religion and family are timeless.
“The mother abbess says when Maria is conflicted about whether she wants to become a nun and falls in love with the captain, ‘The love of a man and a woman is also holy,'” Bird said. “I think we’ve all had moments in our lives where we’ve questioned whether we’re doing the right thing. And not only are we doing the right thing, but how will it affect the people around us?”
According to Byrd, the musical is politically relevant to audiences today. At one performance, Byrd said, an audience member told him the show made him think of his relatives in Israel who had to hide from attacks.
“It feels too timely,” is what he told me,” Byrd said. “I thought what an interesting time it is to do a show for families and to leave your home because of the political unrest while it’s literally happening right now in Israel.”
But that’s the role of theater, Bird said, to move people.
“If we have people in the audience who relate to it in a new way, I think we’re doing our job,” Byrd said.
Hillsdale local Jennifer Wagner, who plays the mother abbess, said the show is especially effective because it moves people through music. Although the play’s message is dark at times, the musical maintains a light tone for most of the script.
“The interesting thing is that they get their message across through a lot of fantastic, upbeat, wonderful music,” Wagner said. “I think it reaches people more deeply, that they’re more open to a new message if they can just sit back and enjoy themselves instead of having to deal with someone who’s arguing.”
Director of Program Review and Accreditation Samuel Negus, who plays Baron Elberfeld, agreed that the show’s lasting significance lies in its combination of fun music and a script that grapples with important issues.
“The pacing and the building of the story and the appeal of the score are the work of two masters,” Negus said. “I believe this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last show together: they were at the peak of their considerable powers. I don’t think musical theater is exactly high art. The genre is just fun and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be excellent.”
According to Franklin, the combination of heavy themes and cheerful music makes The Sound of Music an excellent work of art, which she was grateful to help bring to life.
“In a way, ‘The Sound of Music’ is about the merging of the grave and the serious, the fun and the joy,” Franklin said. “Maria, through her love and the beauty of music, helps to restore joy and reunite a grieving family; and the singing of the von Trapps is like a beautiful parting for a nation suffering from the tragic loss of its identity and freedom. This is a fitting theme for the increasing violence in the world right now: we must continue to create good and beautiful things in the face of great evil and ugliness. I’m with Dostoyevsky: “Beauty will save the world.”