STORY WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Ben Davis has been performing professionally in musicals for more than a decade, and he noticed something interesting about the audiences attending the tour of “The Sound of Music,” in which he is currently playing the male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp.
“The audiences are so diverse,” he says by telephone from Atlanta where “The Sound of Music” was appearing before coming to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music for a week now through Sunday, March 20.
“Usually, when you’re touring in a musical, the audiences are older,” David continues. “The ‘Sound of Music’ audience spans all ages and includes a lot of minorities. I think this speaks to the lasting popularity of the show. Grandparents who remember ‘The Sound of Music’ from their childhoods are taking their grandchildren. Many remember the movie and may only have seen the movie. They get a surprise when they see how different the stage version is.”
That difference, Davis says, is more emphasis on the political climate in 1938 Austria, when and where “The Sound of Music” is set.
“The show looks at a serious time in Europe. It is not only about children and romance. They’re a part of the show, but Adolf Hitler in about to acquire Austria by allegedly peaceful agreement, and the von Trapps are caught up in this unwanted change that takes place a year before Nazi Germany goes to war against England and France.
“Our director, Jack O’Brien, who has been involved with many important musical and opera productions, had a vision for the show that reflects all that is happening politically in addition to the scenes involving the children and Georg and Maria falling in love. There’s conflict that goes beyond children growing up in a household that becomes strict when their father is home or a prominent man gaining shared affection for his children’s governess.
“With his Shakespearean and opera background, Jack O’Brien did a lot of text analysis. He would approach it and discuss it from different angles. Our production is bolder and stronger on the political aspects of the show than the movie is. The script is tighter and stronger than I remembered. There’s a genuine sense of people who don’t know what’s going to happen in Europe and who, in Georg’ case, do not like what they’re seeing. The relationship between Georg and Maria is romantic, but the conditions in 1938 Austria are the opposite. The challenge to convey the danger and confusion of the times while playing love stories about children and their governess and about their father and their governess.”
Davis says he learned his craft as an actor while graduating to ever-larger and more featured roles in tours of “Les Misérables.”
Although he always had a good voice, one people noticed, and enjoyed the theater, Davis, like most teenage boys, was more interested in sports, particularly in basketball, than in performing.
“Basketball wasn’t working out the way I hoped it would, but my mother thought I should be involved in a high school activity and suggested I try out to be in a play. I auditioned and got the role of Riff in ‘West Side Story.’
“Oh great, I thought at the time, a dance role! I was a teenager. I didn’t think of myself as much of anything, but I knew I was a singer with an interest in acting. Riff offers both, and I learned to dance.
“I hadn’t decided on theater when it came time to go to college. I attended Butler University, a liberal arts school in Indianapolis and worked at a brokerage firm. Butler was a good choice because it was local and gave me grounding in a lot of things.
“When I wanted something more fulfilling, I remembered how much I enjoyed performing. I went to Chicago, which has a large performing arts community, to see what was possible. I auditioned for “The Phantom of the Opera,” but the same casting director was involved with ‘Les Misérables,” and he must have seen me in that show because I was flown to New York to audition.
“I was sitting in my office one day when the telephone rang, and I was told there would be one more tryout for ‘Les Miz.’ They wanted to hear if I could hit a particular high note. The audition would be by telephone and was a few days away. I practiced and practiced that high note. I knew it would influence my life, I hit it, got the role in ‘Les Miz,’ and my life has been in the theater since.
“I went from a small part to playing Enjolras and Marius. I spent four years in ‘Les Miz,’ and that was my theater education, a trial by fire during which I learned so much that was helped me throughout my career.”
Davis says he was also helped by working with good directors who had vision like O’Brien, Trevor Nunn, and Baz Luhrmann.
“I learned by doing and listening and improving. I learned mostly to be an actor, which is important in all roles but especially for playing Georg, who has one song of his own, ‘Edelweiss,’ and has to relate differently to different people, especially his children, during ‘The Sound of Music.’