Interview: Refilling the Cup of Hope: Hanley Smith & Will Ray in MSMT's SOUND OF MUSIC

Hanley Smith & Will Ray in MSMT's SOUND OF MUSIC

By: Jun. 07, 2022

Interview: Refilling the Cup of Hope: Hanley Smith & Will Ray in MSMT's SOUND OF MUSIC

"Marc Robin 's vision for this production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC is that of a joyful, hopeful child," says Hanley Smith, the actress who makes her debut as Maria von Trapp this week as Maine State Music Theatre kicks off its "Revival Season." Describing the lens through which director/choreographer Robin views the piece, she continues, "This production comes from a very joyful, youthful place at the same time that there is an awareness of the weight and import of the story. In the face of deep darkness in the world, the light becomes all the brighter. Marc knows how to create both those worlds and the battle between them and make you really want the light to win. And you believe it CAN win. And that is not naïveté; that is an act of courage."

"To come back after the pandemic and now with all that is happening in the world to perform this show is a magical thing," adds her co-star Will Ray, who plays Captain von Trapp. Before coming to MSMT, both Ray and Smith starred in a production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Fulton Theatre [in Lancaster, PA], just as live theatres were regaining their stride. Says Ray, "At the end after the bows, you could see people's eyes fill with joyous tears because the show and our singing were a reminder of how much the world needs live theatre in general and this show in particular now."

Smith and Ray concur with Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark that Rodgers and Hammerstein's iconic, beloved last collaboration is "the perfect show to open MSMT's first fully programmed season since 2019." Not only is this classic filled with stirring music and a heart-wrenching, soul-uplifting emotional core, but its story, set in 1938 at the time of Hitler's Anschluss of Austria, is laden with an uncanny political resonance for the world in 2022. And the story of Smith and Ray's involvement with the production mirrors the artists' personal journeys through the difficulty days of the pandemic back to the joy of performing.

Interview: Refilling the Cup of Hope: Hanley Smith & Will Ray in MSMT's SOUND OF MUSIC Smith begins: "On the very day we opened at the Fulton Theatre, Russia invaded UKRAINE, so the resonance of the story was even more deeply impactful. It is a story about family, faith, hope, and the importance of music and the arts to bring people together in times of incredible discord. It's also a story about standing up for things you believe in in the face of autocracy." For Smith, whose husband is half Ukrainian, the experience has been particularly devastating: "I stand with my husband and as we perform this show I think of all the people in the Ukraine and others who have lived through some version of this story, and I feel such a responsibility to honor their experience."

Ray continues: "We had heard rumblings about Russia's planning to invade Ukraine. And then they did it. Here was this truly unbelievable thing I thought would never again happen in today's world actually happening! Thinking about the Ukrainians was heartbreaking..unimaginable...and there I was singing "Edelweiss..bless my homeland forever."

But in addition to the political overtones of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, both Smith and Ray have found some other very special affinities with the musical, especially coming to it right after the pandemic. Ray talks about being slated to join the cast of TITANIC at the Fulton in spring 2020 when it was postponed to August and then to 2021. "That's when I started to lose hope. I went for a period of six months without singing when a friend asked me to record a selection from PHANTOM with her. I have never gone that long without singing and when I did, tears flooded my eyes."

Smith agrees that what turned out to be a hiatus of almost three years was "soul crushing. I questioned when performing would ever come back and what were the new meanings in our lives. Because as artists, we put a lot of our hearts and souls into our work and this 'job' does define who we are.' I felt as if I have these gifts that I am supposed to share with a live audience in a community setting. In live theatre the audience is as much a character as we are. You can feel when they are deeply engaged, and every performance is a once in a lifetime, unrepeatable moment. To no longer be having those conversations with an audience was utter stagnation!" And so, for these actors to return to the stage this season with a show in which music is a metaphor for joy and love and light has seemed the perfect gift.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC is arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein's most beloved creation, and the musical and the movie are iconic experiences for so many. Ray admits that being asked to play Captain von Trapp was "at first a bit terrifying, but so exciting. Everyone knows something about the musical, but to be able to put your own stamp on the role while still honoring some of the tradition is special."

Smith confesses that she was a "superfan" of the movie and visited Salzburg with her brother. "I am such a nerd; I toured all the sights and I sang the songs there while my brother videotaped me."

Interview: Refilling the Cup of Hope: Hanley Smith & Will Ray in MSMT's SOUND OF MUSIC Ray expounds on his take on the character of Captain von Trapp, who in this production is portrayed as a much younger man than the historical Georg von Trapp. "Marc [Robin] has taken the liberty to make him a little younger - nothing in the script contradicts that notion - and that makes the love relationship believable. The arc of his character is a fascinating one. He starts at such a grief-stricken place in his life, and he reverts to the only thing he knows: the military. He has no idea how to raise seven kids on his own."

Smith chimes in: Just as MARY POPPINS is really about Mr. Banks, THE SOUND OF MUSIC is really about Captain von Trapp and the children's transformational arc. Maria comes to save the whole family. From the first moment she sees the Captain, she thinks how really attractive he is, but she reminds herself she is a professional who has come to be a governess. She finds his strictness in running his household enraging, and she stands up to him pretty forcefully. He takes it, and there is this battle of wills. You get a sense they are equals. It's kind of sizzley. Having been brought up in a nunnery, Maria doesn't recognize what is happening at first, and when she does, she has to run away because she believes she has sinned. Maria first falls in love with the children and then with the Captain's greatest strength which is his love for his children and his country."

And so, in any production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the children are very important to the mix. At MSMT there are two casts of kids - "the red cast and the blue cast" - and their youth and vitality serve as inspirations to the entire company. Says Smith, "These youth actors inhabit their roles with such a purity; nothing holds them back. To see the light in their eyes skipping around the stage is such a joy. They infuse everything with hope for the future. As artists we try to nourish and protect that [spirit] and to learn from them how not to become jaded."

Ray enthusiastically seconds this idea: "Working with the kids in this show has truly restored my faith in the future of the world."

Besides the challenges of developing these characters, both actors love the score of the show and talk about the many musical moments which give them goosebumps. Smith especially loves singing "Do Re Mi" "with the children skipping and the audience sometimes clapping along" and "receiving "Climb Every Mountain." Ray loves the final "Edelweiss" but also the moment when he and Maria "have a blowout fight and then as he realizes she is responsible for his children's singing, they sing a little snippet together. Sometimes I have trouble getting through that; it's so emotional."

Asked what they hope the audience takes away from this production, the actors distill the message of the musical. Hanley Smith articulates her wish "that audiences walk away believing that the light is still worth fighting for. The von Trapp family climbs this mountain because they know there is a better world out there . Their hopefulness is a strength. I hope people leave with their hope cups refilled!"

Will Ray seconds those thoughts and adds, "After all the darkness of these last three years without live music and performance, without a clear direction for the future, this show brings a renewed sense of joy and hope."

Both believe THE SOUND OF MUSIC speaks to "the importance of love, family, faith, kindness, and courage. "We hope all of our hearts can be blessed with the power of music, love, and hope."

Photos courtesy of MSMT; photo 1 photographer, Kinectiv

THE SOUND OF MUSIC runs from June 8-25 at the Pickard theater, 1 Bath Road, Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769


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