Adam Penford brings The Sound of Music to Chichester Festival Theatre

Penford recreates this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic

“We’re on the stage where on Saturday for the first time, we’ll be running the whole show.” Award-winning director Adam Penford is taking a short break in rehearsals to tell me about his new staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s last and most treasured musical, The Sound Of Music. “We’ve done all the components but haven’t yet put it all together in one big show. When you see the whole thing, you start to realise what needs a bit more work. It’s getting exciting.”

The production forms the centrepiece of Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2023 season. Renowned for their big blockbuster musicals, it’s the dream summer gig for anyone in the industry. Rodgers & Hammerstein titles are often crowd-pleasers, CFT’s past presentations of Oklahoma and South Pacific proved to be runaway successes, so this carries on the tradition.

“The Rodgers & Hammerstein estate, who look after the whole body of work, count The Sound Of music as their jewel in the crown,” Penford tells me. “That probably comes from how popular it is with the public, particularly in association with the movie. The audience tend to know it really it well. There’s a joy in one way, but there’s also a pressure from the expectations. It is one of the best musicals ever written.”

Adam Penford in rehearsal for The Sound of Music CFT Photo by Manuel Harlan

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein rocked the world of musical theatre in the 40s and 50s, with ambitious staging and narratives focussed on developing characters. With shows like Carousel and The King and I, they gathered 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and two Grammy Awards between them. Understandably, the guardians of their estate are keen to safeguard this remarkable legacy. You’re not allowed to make changes to the actual dialogue or songs, but there’s still a little room for interpretation.

“The CFT stage is on three sides. That instantly means you have to present shows differently, so that’s really cool. Because it means you have to be creative. You’ve got the Alps for example. What designer Rob Jones and I came up with was something more sculptural and expressionistic. The mountain range is always onstage and forms a backdrop for the whole show; even when you’re in a scene which takes place inside the Von Trapp family villa. As anyone who has been to Salzburg will know, you’re always conscious of the mountains.”

For anyone that hasn’t spent a joyful Bank Holiday afternoon watching the classic film rendition of this musical; The Sound Of Music revolves around the true story of the Von Trapp family.

Seven children are coming to terms with various changes following the death of their mother. The family’s patriarch, a captain in the Austrian Navy has become increasingly distant, while also embarking upon a new romantic relationship. Inserted into this fraught scenario is Maria, a wilful nun who is struggling to prove her worth to the other sisters of her order. She is dispatched to be a governess to the youngsters, while hopefully trying to stay out of trouble.

“It can resonate with any family. He’s a single parent. They’ve got money… they can afford staff and a governess to look after the children, but there’s this bereavement. Maria comes into the picture, and at first thinks it’s God’s will that she’s there to reunite the family and help the children connect with their new mother.” While it all might seem to culminate with the blossoming love of Maria and Captain Von Trapp, the spectre of fascism begins to loom across the whole of Europe. “It’s quite interesting. Everything is looking positive by the end of act one. Then the Germans start to invade, and the politics start to come in. It’s more about what is happening to Austria rather than their personal contact. It’s clever really, in terms of the structure.”

“When I start to look at it, you’ve got this totalitarian regime, which wants to annexe Austria and make it part of Germany.

Hitler has ordered his troops across the border. Captain Von Trapp is against that, and makes a moral standpoint, putting him and his family’s lives at risk. They’re forced to flee. When you start to think about that in the current context, with Ukraine and migrants crossing oceans to seek sanctuary, you go: ‘Actually, this is still really pertinent, even though it’s set in 1938.’ It has a lot to say about today.” Penford says he’s taking this aspect of the story very seriously, aware of doing a disservice to those people who face similar circumstances today. “I also think it’s what Rodgers & Hammerstein intended when they originally wrote it.” The real-life family would eventually escape the war and moved to America. After building a successful living as a singing ensemble, their incredible story was revealed to the world through Maria’s autobiography, The Vonn Trapp Family Singers

Gina Beck & the ‘von Trapp children’ in rehearsal for The Sound of Music at CFT Photo Manuel Harlan

This inspired a German film adaptation in 1956, which became a huge hit Europe. Stage director Vincent J. Donehue realised a similar project would be perfect for his friend, the Broadway star Mary Martin, which could feature the family’s religious and baroque music.

“That was what the original idea was for the songs… quite baroque and liturgical. Rodgers & Hammerstein were asked to provide one or two songs to supplement these. They pointed out that their musical theatre songs along these classical compositions wouldn’t work. So, they suggested they write all the songs and turn it into a proper musical.”

With a few details of their story altered for dramatic impact, and the addition of  musical numbers like My Favourite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Edelweiss and So Long, Farewell, initially The Sound of Music premiered at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre in Connecticut for a short test run. After another trial in Boston, it moved onto Broadway for almost 1,500 performances. This runaway success saw an American film version released in 1965. Starring Julie Andrews as Maria Rainer and Christopher Plummer as Captain Georg von Trapp, it went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture. Undoubtedly, this is the version of the story which most of the world has encountered.

Obviously, there’s a faint nervousness about staging something which so many people have an emotional tie to. There can’t be many people who haven’t seen the film version and been enchanted by these iconic characters. Stepping into the frame as Maria at CFT is Gina Beck, who wowed as Nellie Forbush in their acclaimed production of South Pacific.

“We just knew she’d be perfect for it. Now having been in rehearsals for four weeks, she’s just stunning. It’s a tough job. She’s following in the footsteps of Julie Andreas.

And it’s estimated that Maria does three miles every performance, including running offstage for costume changes. It’s like being a footballer. There’s a huge amount of technique and craft which goes into it. You need that extra special something.”

Making Chichester debuts are Edward Harrison (A Christmas Carol, Skellig) as Captain von Trapp and opera singer Janis Kelly as Mother Abbess. Returning are Ako Mitchell (Caroline, Or Change, The Color Purple) as Max Detweiler and Emma Williams (Half A Sixpence, Love Story) as Elsa Schraeder. Part of The Sound Of Music’s charm is that it’s packed with themes which resonate today. There’s Maria, who desperately needs some structure and responsibility to inspire her, and Captain Von Trapp who is grieving both the loss of his wife and the prestige of his nation.

Things only get more complex for all involved when this pair start to develop feelings for each other. For Maria, it triggers an existential crisis, as she’s intending to take her vows and become a nun. Behind all of this is an exploration of parental love, betrayal, belief and death, which are the big things we all tackle. “Because he was a highly-regarded naval captain, Von Trapp falls back on that, and starts treating the children almost like they’re sailors on his ship. I guess that’s his default which he can control. He also bans music from the house, because he and his wife used to enjoy singing and playing instruments, but now it just reminds him of her.”

Gina Beck and Edward Harrison in rehearsal for The Sound of Music CFT Photo Manuel Harlan

Involvement with the respected summer season came after CFT’s outgoing creative Director, Daniel Evans, called him with an offer impossible to turn down.

“He said: ‘I have a feeling you’re going to love doing this.’ The Chichester summer musical is one of the highlights of UK theatre. Everyone takes notice. There’s that prestige. Also, the quality of the team who deliver it to the stage, is so world-renowned. It’s really exciting.”

For the last few years, Penford has been serving as Creative Director of the renowned Nottingham Playhouse – grabbing attention for productions including Piaf and his award-winning The Madness of George III. Growing up in the city, his first experiences of theatre were going there to see pantomimes. This enticed him into youth theatre groups, and then on to Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, where he trained as an actor. “Whilst I was there, I started wondering if acting wasn’t for me, so I started directing at the same time. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a director.” Moving to London, he worked freelance for several years, before the role at Nottingham Playhouse came up. Although he originally only applied to get some valuable interview experience.

“I genuinely didn’t think I’d get it. I guess because I had an affiliation to the city, an understanding of the venue, and clear ideas of how to reach an audience, I got the gig.”

The venue has a prestigious history. Previous Artistic Directors have included luminaries like Stuart Burge, Richard Eyre, Geoffrey Reeves, Richard Digby Day and Kenneth Alan Taylor. Under Penfold’s stewardship it won The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year award and continues to offer a thoughtful programme of ground-breaking work. He suggests provincial venues are where all the interesting stuff is happening. “We’ve got some great ones. Chichester being one of the leading lights. It’s about putting on work which gets press interest. You can’t sell any old thing, you’ve got to have the right product to attract that interest. 

“You’re always thinking about what audience you’re trying to attract. We’re trying to promote new voices, as well as bringing in actors, directors and writers. You’re always trying to balance daring and risky work with the fact it is a business. The truth is, it’s no fun for anyone involved if you’re playing to one man and his dog. There’s a lot of work which goes into making theatre, so you want to make something which does speak to people and make them want to come and experience it.”

Adam Penford’s The Sound Of Music comes to Chichester Festival Theatre on Mon 10 July – Sun 3 Sept. For more details and tickets, visit: 

See what else is on as part of Chichester Festival Theatre’s season here

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