'Climb ev'ry mountain," sings the wise and benevolent abbess in Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical The Sound of Music. In the Bay Area, there is only one mountain audiences need to climb to hear the abbess perform that iconic song, following in the footsteps of local theater-seekers who have been climbing said mountain every year for an entire century.
As the Mountain Play celebrates its remarkable 100th anniversary, the majestic setting of Mt. Tamalpais and the vast Cushing Memorial Amphitheater add a bit of mountain magic of their own as veteran director Jay Manley stages The Sound of Music for its very first run on the mountain.
This will also be Manley's first time directing this particular show, and his first ever time helming the Mountain Play. (James Dunn, who served as artistic director for the past 30 years, stepped down last year after staging a successful production of The Music Man.) One might expect that Manley, who founded the Foothill Music Theater in Los Altos, could be feeling a tad nervous, taking up the mantle from a certified Bay Area legend such as Dunn.
"I am deeply respectful of the amazing history of the Mountain Play, and certainly James Dunn's incalculable contribution to that history," Manley says between rehearsals. "But I'm actually not at all intimidated to be following in his footsteps. I'm excited."
At Foothill Music Theater, Manley staged some enormous productions, including Show Boat and Ragtime, artistically and technically demanding shows that have earned him a reputation as a bit of a theatrical giant tamer. Not that the Mountain Play doesn't come with a few new challenges.
"What is certainly new for me is the opportunity to work outdoors," he says. "The outdoor element is one of the challenges that I was most excited to tackle. At this point in my career, I'm very ready and eager for big challenges, and they don't get much bigger than the Mountain Play."
Led by Heather Buck as Maria, Susan Zelinsky as the countess and David Yen as Uncle Max, this year's cast is full of Mountain Play veterans, and Manley says that's been a tremendous asset to an incoming director.
"They have been so wonderfully welcoming and supportive of me," he remarks. "I haven't had a moment where I thought, 'Oh, gosh! Can I do this?' From day one, it's been the opposite."
Doing this show outdoors, Manley explains, allowed him to reexamine and rethink The Sound of Music. The play, set in the Alps of Austria in the days leading up to WWII, would seem an obvious fit for Mt. Tam. But there appear to have been some solid reasons that it's never been performed there in the 54 years since it debuted on Broadway.
"It's funny," notes Manley, "because when you think of the movie, with Julie Andrews running along a mountaintop, you can forget that this is actually a very intimate piece. Most of it happens indoors, and there aren't the rousing choruses of an Oklahoma or a Music Man."
Recognizing the ironic need to "open up" the play, Manley did some research, and came up with some clever solutions to the problem. One has to do with the Nonnberg Abbey, in Salzburg, Austria, where the real-life Maria von Trapp (whose memoir inspired the play) served as a Benedictine postulant before leaving the church. The abbey was founded in the early 700s.
"I discovered that before the Nonnberg Abbey was established," Manley recounts, "there was also St. Peter's monastery, also Benedictine, and they were instrumental in setting up the Abbey. And so I got this idea that, instead of just having a chorus of nuns, how about also having a chorus of Benedictine monks? So this production will have a considerably larger chorus than one would see in a traditional production of The Sound of Music, helping to fill out the big space."
Asked how a director tackles such an intimate piece in such a vast setting, performing to literally thousands of audience members at once, Manley explains that it's a matter of balance.
"You play big—that is, you play more of the acting out toward the audience," he says. "But also, you play it for truth. These were real people, with real emotions. If we keep it real, it will play anywhere, even in an amphitheater the size of this one.
"Size," he adds, "does not compromise truth."