The Sound of Music plays the Fox Theatre on March 1-6.
LET’S START at the very beginning, a very good place to start this story.
We’re not going clear back to the Iowa birth and Indiana boyhood of Ben Davis, who plays the dashing yet guarded Captain Georg von Trapp in The Sound of Music. We’ll begin, instead, with his theater career.
He was a basketball player in high school until he quit the team “because I got mad at the coach. I have a little problem with authority. I’m much better off when I’m the authority figure.”
So long, farewell, to hoops meant Davis could audition for the school musical, in this case West Side Story. “I was the most non-dancing Riff you’ve ever met in your life,” he says. The only singing he’d done until then was “at the back of the bus, to try to get girls. It usually just made them annoyed at me.”
Fast-forward to Davis at 22. He’d left college after two years and was working at a brokerage firm in Indianapolis. He wasn’t doing theater; he didn’t see much opportunity.
An open casting call for The Phantom of the Opera took him to Chicago. Phantom didn’t bite, but its casting director invited him to return for a Les Misérables audition. He did, later flying to New York for callbacks. He returned to his day job, thinking that was that.
Then Les Miz called again. They weren’t sure how high he could sing. Could he hit a high A? Davis had no idea but soon was singing into his phone for the show’s music director in New York.
“I hit the note,” Davis says. “I sang it twice. I don’t think I had ever sung it before and I bet I looked like I was dying, but that didn’t matter because it was just audio.”
Two weeks later he joined the Les Miz national tour, a job that lasted more than five years. Eventually, he moved to Broadway, playing the rebellious Enjolras (“Do You Hear the People Sing”) and, later, inspector Javert.
Davis’ robust baritone and leading-man looks (he’s almost 6-foot-2) earned him a passel of classic musical roles — Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Curly in Oklahoma!, Emile de Becque in South Pacific. In reviewing Davis’ singing of “This Nearly Was Mine” (South Pacific), a St. Louis critic wrote that Davis sang in “a voice as rich and deep as sapphires.”
Vocally, the role of Captain von Trapp is smooth sailing, and that suits Davis fine. What also suits him is how three-time Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien is shaping the show. He’s not just dusting off the 1960 musical, most loved for its Rodgers & Hammerstein score.
Over the decades, says Davis, now 40, we’ve been “luxuriating in the nostalgia of this show. We’ve just let it come to us.”
O’Brien, meanwhile, is “constantly challenging” the actors to look at the piece anew by having a deep understanding of the material and the ability to dissect text. He has helped uncover nuance and layers in the original libretto. Hopes are high that this new staging might do-re-mi its way to Broadway. (The musical was most recently revived there in 1998-99.)
O’Brien “has given the show an urgency that brings people forward in their seats,” Davis days. “With the politically charged climate today, and issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, I think audiences are sensing that there could be some correlation between what was happening in 1938, when the Nazis were threatening to take over.”
Von Trapp, who’s often played as stern, somewhat wooden and one-dimensional, is more complicated than that, Davis says. “This is a guy who has suffered great loss. His wife has passed away, and he’s still grieving. He has lost hope. He is left with seven children and has shut out any prospect of joy happening for him again.
“I lost my dad three years ago, and also my marriage,” Davis says. “And I can identify with the sense of loss. Sometimes you look at things and say, ‘Oh my God, what has my life become?’ And I can see Captain von Trapp saying that. I think we all go through that at times.”