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Hong Kong, the wait is nearly over for The Sound of Music

As Andrew Lloyd Webber musical begins five-and-a-half week run, we talk to cast members and to producer David Ian about how the show began

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 11:02pm

When musical producers Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian first discussed a new version of The Sound of Music for London's West End more than a decade ago, they had a problem. How should they cast the lead role of Maria, a young nun who starts to work as a nanny to a musical family in Austria in the 1930s? They needed someone young who you really do believe "climbs a tree and scrapes her knee", yet who was also a big enough name to fill the London Palladium.

The first promising discussions with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson led nowhere. They had the idea of holding auditions for the role on TV, where one candidate each week would be voted out.

"The programme was brought on by the BBC as a summer filler," recalls Ian of the 2006 show. "We were genuinely nervous about it, Andrew and I."

Millions of pounds were at stake. There was a huge risk that they could end up with someone the public voted for as the underdog but who couldn't do the job. And the format was designed to let that happen. "I remember BBC were mostly focused on the fact that it was a genuine audition process and the voting had to be open handed," Ian says.

But they were lucky. The series gained cult status. And the winner, Connie Fisher, was Ian's and Lloyd Webber's choice too; the show opened in 2006 to five-star reviews and has kept going strong ever since, performing to packed houses around the world. The Sound of Music will begin its Hong Kong run on May 15.

Ian remembers the exact place and time on which he fell in love with theatre. It was his 13th birthday, and he was sitting in the dress circle of London's Drury Lane theatre, with his parents sitting beside him. The curtain rose on a musical called Billy; Ian's theatre idol, Michael Crawford, came on stage. It was his first West End show. He was hooked. "After that I said to my mum and dad I now know what I want to do for the rest of my life."

The next morning he applied to be in the school play and got in.

"I remember thinking: 'Oh, my gosh, there are all these shows and plays on, literally round the corner from each other in the West End'," says the producer. So the following week he went to see Jesus Christ Superstar and, for 50 pence , he sat right up at the top of the Palace Theatre, and watched an actor called Paul Nicholas playing Jesus. Years later, when Ian and Nicholas were in the same show together, they had a conversation about how unstable the life of an actor was, and they became business partners for their first major production, Grease.

Ian's done well. The Stage recently called him "the most important man in British theatre". He laughed when asked about it. "Unfortunately, not in my own house," he says. "I always take those things with a pinch of salt as you're absolutely as good as your next hit rather than the ones you've had before." He does have a lot of shows, though: in April he had 11 productions around the world, all of them costing millions of pounds and all of them risks.

In The Sound of Music the musical, Hugh Osborne plays Max, a friend of the family. He is the only character who is entirely fictional, but whose journey plays an important role in reminding us that the key to a successful musical is not just fantastic sets and a great singer. It has to be honest and deal with real feelings and dilemmas.

"Max has a very definite move from acting selfishly to acting nobly," Osborne says. "He's the architect of his own misfortune. He manoeuvres the family into singing at the beginning, and he's the one who engineers their departure." He also, in the end, sacrifices himself, and opens himself up to terrible risk. "What happens to Max is one of the many things in The Sound of Music that gives the lie to it being a saccharine story," Osborne says.

Carmen Pretorius, 25, plays the lead role of Maria. It is, of course, an honour, she says from South Africa, before flying to Hong Kong for the show. "But it's also kind of lonely, to be honest. You can't go out partying and drinking with your mates. You can't even talk very much. I spend a lot of time by myself walking, reading, resting, and steaming my voice to keep it supple.

"I steam maybe three times a day, and if I'm doing double shows, I'll do twice that. That's the life of a lead: playing Maria, it's kind of crazy how much you have to steam," she says with a laugh.

There are two quick changes in the show. In one, she runs off, and as soon as she is out of sight, she is getting undressed. Five people are waiting to help her put on the new costume and then she has to race back, pretending to be relaxed, all in a matter of seconds. "Once I couldn't get my arm through the sleeve … There was this little unobtrusive piece of string that had come undone and I got my thumb caught in it so I kind of ended up going on stage as if I had a gammy hand because I couldn't move it."

She was part of the cast for a China tour in December and January. "It was incredible: everyone knew the song Edelweiss; it was in every shopping mall." The song is sung at a heart-wrenching moment in the musical, she says. "But the audience associates it with something positive and uplifting, and they joined in."

At first the cast found this, and the constant chatter from the audience, disconcerting. "And we then realised that they weren't talking through it because they weren't interested, but it was parents, explaining to their children what is happening … and in the end, we found it very inspiring."

Ian said he heard from Fisher, the 2006 Maria, a couple of weeks ago. After years of successful musical leads, she has become a TV producer and has just broadcast her first programme. "We've stayed close friends and she calls me 'Dad' because I'm always giving her advice," he says.

What advice would he give her, or anyone else who wants to be a producer? "I would say don't risk more than you can afford to lose because it's an incredibly risky game," says Ian. "There are stories of people having remortgaged homes in order to do something, and I would say in this day and age, don't do that. Be really sensible when it comes to risk taking, because you might not be right. It might not work, and you want to be able to bounce back and do it again."

The veteran says that if you bury yourself in a half-million-pound hole at the start you could spend the rest of your life just digging yourself out of that one: "And I would also say listen to absolutely everybody … and then back your own opinion."

The Sound of Music, Academy for Performing Arts, Lyric Theatre, May 15-June 21, various times, 1 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, HK$395-HK$995, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 31288288