‘President of Theatre’ on enduring popularity of ‘The Sound of Music’

Ben Davis and Kerstin Anderson in ‘The Sound of Music.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

When it’s an R&H show, ‘it’s our reputation that’s on the line’

Ted Chapin’s official title is President of the R&H music publishing company. But Broadway producer Ken Davenport once suggested simply calling him “President of Theater,” for greater accuracy.

Chapin was born into a powerful New York family whose patriarch was the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under Rudolph Giuliani, and whose matriarch was daughter of the founder of Steinway pianos.

Chapin was just 31 when he was handpicked by the daughter of Richard Rodgers to oversee the library of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, which only begins with the songwriting duo many consider the best of all-time. R&H wrote nine musicals for Broadway, one movie and one TV show over 17 years. But the R&H library (now owned by Imagem Publishing Group) now licenses about 2,500 productions by composers ranging from Irving Berlin to Andrew Lloyd Webber to Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The jewel in the R&H crown is, of course, The Sound of Music, which comes to Denver in a new touring production starting Tuesday (June 21). The franchise born in 1959 continues to enjoy extraordinary popularity. Chapin was one of the key figures behind NBC’s bold move to bring musicals back to live television after 50 years, starting with Carrie Underwood starring in The Sound of Music in 2013. The broadcast drew 44 million viewers. “Part of the magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein is how their work has adapted itself to so many different incarnations,” Chapin said.

Chapin estimates The Sound of Music averages about 700 productions a year worldwide. And 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the film version, which continues to be the most successful movie musical in history.

As President of Theatre, er, R&H, Chapin has personally overseen more than 20 Broadway and West End revivals of R&H classics. He’s the past chairman of the American Theatre Wing and author of the book Everything Was Possible – a bird’s-eye view of the birth of Stephen Sondheim’s seminal musical Follies from Chapin’s perspective as a 22-year-old production assistant.

He says the version of The Sound of Music coming to Denver this week is more emotionally layered, much as the first Broadway revival of South Pacific was in 2008. The idea to revisit The Sound of Music came from the Hairspray team of director Jack O’Brien and producer Margo Lion, who saw the first authorized production of The Sound of Music in Russia a few years ago. O’Brien described it as “a fairly abstract Euro-trash production” that made very little literal sense. “But as I watched how an untried young soprano related to the children, and when she faced her remarkably young and vigorous Captain von Trapp,” O’Brien said, “I found unexpected tears of joy and happiness running down my face. What on earth was I to do with this nearly embarrassing reaction?”

When O’Brien later saw what he called a “deeply intelligent and carefully crafted” new script by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, “it felt as it some lost vault was opening up,” he said. And so, the revival was on.

We talked to Chapin this week about a variety of topics, starting with his job title. What exactly does it mean to be President of R&H? Davenport equivocates the job to someone standing outside Fort Knox and deciding who goes in and what goes out. Chapin takes his stab at the same question below:

Ted Chapin: Believe it or not, I have never had a job description. That’s the fun of it. Only because my job came to be a year after Rodgers died. The only reason there is even an office is because Rodgers and Hammerstein, uniquely among their peers, held onto all of their rights. They didn’t have Samuel French or Music Theatre International license their shows. Over the years, as they started making movie versions of their shows, it even got to the point where R&H ended up owning the movies themselves. That was unheard of. To adopt this mentality of keeping all their eggs in one basket showed an extraordinary confidence. They didn’t build theatres. Irving Berlin built a theatre. For R&H, it was all about the material they created, and wanting it performed in the best way possible. When I was approached about coming to work here, the two families didn’t quite know what to do next. I found out in subsequent years they had talked to a couple of fancier people about coming to run it, but I think the fancy people had fancy ideas about what the job would be. But Mary Rodgers (Richard’s daughter) knew me, she knew my parents and she knew my work. It was Mary who suggested the best move might be to go with the young person to help them figure out what the hell the job should be. I thought the job should be keeping these properties in the family, and keeping these songs out there in circulation in the best way possible. That meant figuring out how to self-manage copyrights in a new era, and as things change. So that basically became the job. And that has been the fun, frankly.

John Moore: So were their contemporaries being exploited in terms of royalties at the time?

Ted Chapin: It starts with royalties but was more about managing their own fate.

John Moore: The R&H name has come to mean so much more than just R&H because of the expansion of your catalog to include names like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Ted Chapin: Yes, I certainly hope for that. Early on, I kept saying, ‘People know Tiffany’s as a place that has high-class stuff. But many people who go into Tiffany’s today don’t know that Louis Comfort Tiffany made stained glass. The Tiffany’s name has morphed into something that means quality in turquoise boxes. If we can make people think of us as a house that has good stuff, that’s fine by me.

John Moore: So if you’re the Tiffany’s of music publishing, How picky are you in terms of who you will allow in?

Ted Chapin: Rather than being ‘picky,’ I would say we try to be selective. We look for properties we think will be good for both of us. Early on, we had some things that we could not sell in any way. Richard Adler, may he rest in peace, wrote The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. He also wrote a bunch of concert works, and he very much wanted us to publish them. I went to school with one of his sons, so I knew him, and I finally had to tell him: ‘The people who call us for pops concerts only want what they know. We can’t seem to get them interested in anything else. So I don’t think we’re the right fit for these.’ But I’ve always tried to find things like In the Heights. And having faith that Lin-Manuel Miranda was devoted to the theatre, it stood to reason that he might write more shows that are interesting. That was a good call.

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John Moore: In the Heights was revolutionary in its way, but we don’t necessarily think of R&H as revolutionary. Why was that the right property for you?

Ted Chapin: To be honest, the first time I met Lin-Manuel was because he is a huge fan of my Follies book (Everything Was Possible). That was a nice way for me to meet him. There was a mutual respect. But at the end of the day, it comes down to people. Yes, some people like Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers’ grandson) came with the family. But Andrew Lloyd Webber is a huge fan of Rodgers’ music, and he will speak about that at the drop of a hat. They needed somebody to take care of their shows here. So we made an arrangement with him to represent all of his shows in this territory. That was very good arrangement.

John Moore: So we have The Sound of Music coming to Denver, and I’m wondering: We as a nation, especially now, seem to have the attention span of a gnat. But somehow or another, The Sound of Music has managed to live on in the collective consciousness of subsequent generations of Americans. How did you do that?

Ted Chapin: Well, No. 1: I think it’s really good, and in the end, good wins the day. It’s a really good story. The songs are really good. People are captivated by it. The interesting challenge with The Sound of Music was it was written as a star vehicle for Mary Martin on Broadway, and it did just fine. She won a Tony Award away from Ethel Merman (Gypsy). Then it was made into a movie and suddenly some very, very smart decisions were made in the film adaptation of this stage show. There are three songs in the stage show that were completely reconceived for the movie – and they work. That’s very rare. Usually when people play around with stage productions, something falls on its face, and it doesn’t work. But the film people who made that movie were really, really smart. So now these two very different versions of The Sound of Music now exist in a parallel universe, and they are equally good.

John Moore: What’s new about the touring production coming to Denver?

Ted Chapin: First of all, it has a major director: Jack O’Brien, who saw the original Broadway production with Mary Martin, and he still remembers it vividly. Well, Jack also saw a more recent production in Moscow with Margo Lion a, producer of Hairspray. Jack realized what’s in this story that people overlook: It’s a love story between a girl who has no experience whatsoever in love, and a man whose wife has died and has shut love out completely. They are total opposites, but they have that in common. The way Jack has directed this, audiences are like, ‘Whoa. Wow. OK. I hadn’t realized that.’

John Moore: How are the songs different?

Ted Chapin: Movie fans think of Do-Re-Mi as that lovely song where they romp all around the Alps and ride on bicycles by the side of the lake. But in the stage show, these kids are unhappy. They don’t like having new governesses, and they are going to test this one. So the song Do-Re-Mi starts with these kids ready to destroy Maria, just like they have destroyed them all. But instead, in te stage show, this is the moment when the kids bond with Maria. So you need to start with the kids as little monsters, and slowly, by the end of the song, they are actually getting along. That’s when you start to think this could actually work out. I am telling you, Jack has been so smart about he decisions he made for this production.

John Moore: So I want to get your take on this story: It’s more than 10 years ago. I am the theatre critic at The Denver Post, and I review a production of The Sound of Music at a local dinner theatre. I mention that, for whatever reason, they skip over the wedding scene entirely. And I mentioned that, for potential audiences who might be expecting one. So a day after the review is published, I am told, this theatre had receives a letter from R&H attorneys essentially saying: “Put the wedding back in, or you lose your rights. And within 24 hours, they rehearse the scene and get new more costumes and the wedding scene is back in. Tell me from the R&H point of view about the need to stay true to the story as written – and licensed?

Ted Chapin: Well, first: I honor you for having said what you did in the review. I don’t like doing that. But if people don’t behave right, that’s something you have to do. There are theatres around the world that feel whatever script you get from a licensing house is just a blueprint for you to go off and create whatever you want. I always say to these companies from the very beginning, ‘Please – no surprises.’ If that theatre had called me, that would at least have started a dialogue. We got a request just last week from a production of The King & I that said they do not want a child to play the Buddha in  The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet because the choreographer feels it’s disrespectful to have a child pretending to be Buddha. Their position was so clearly stated and passionately expressed that it was a very easy thing for me to say, ‘By all means. Don’t have a child play the Buddha.’ In the big picture, that is not going to take anything away from anything. I would so much rather be in that situation than be surprised. I grew up in the theatre. I respect what goes on there. But it’s our reputation on the line there.

John Moore: I want to ask you about R&H’s commitment to high-school theatre, which is obviously a huge part of your operation.

Ted Chapin: Yes. I am a firm believer that the earlier you can ‘get’ people, the better. We have embraced the ‘Broadway Junior’ program that MTI started. There was a fear when we started doing student versions that if people can do these shows in grade schools, they won’t be interested in doing the full production later on. But exactly the opposite has happened. It has proven to be really interesting. People want to know what was cut – and then they want to do the uncensored version as soon as they can.

John Moore: So for people who hear The Sound of Music is coming town and say, ‘I love that show, but I don’t need to see it again’ … why do they need to see it again?

Ted Chapin: Because it is the best-directed production of The Sound of Music you are ever going to see. When this tour started in Los Angeles, one critic pointed out that when Maria sang the lyric, ‘I come to the hills when my heart is lonely’ … in the very first song, that critic wrote: ‘She looked troubled.’ And for the first time I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute. There is reason this young postulant is alone on the top of a hill. In the stage version, she doesn’t twirl. Because while the twirl is all about a helicopter effect. And while that is a brilliant way to begin the movie, it’s not a brilliant way to open the stage production. Because that’s not the kind of emotion she’s in. Every decision Jack makes is simply to make clear what’s going on in the story. So people who know and love it are in for a bit of surprise, because there are things to be discovered that are kind of wonderful. It’s like revisiting an old friend whose clothes are different.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Our The Sound of Music Photo Gallery:

The Sound of Music
Photos by Matthew Murphy. To see more, click the forward arrow in the image above.

The Sound of Music:
Ticket information

June 21-26
Buell Theatre
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Groups: Call 303-446-4829
ASL interpreted, Audio Described and Open Captioned performance: 2 p.m., June 25

Previous NewsCenter coverage of The Sound of Music

The Real Von Trapps and the sound of freedom