When you’re part of a traveling theater production, every show is a new opportunity to wow the audience in a different part of the country.
For Broadway veteran and Indianapolis native Ben Davis, that can be both a thrill and a challenge. People in different regions approach a show in different ways, and what one audience might connect with misses another group.
But in his role in “The Sound of Music,” Davis has found a universal quality that he never expected.
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“This show is in the American lexicon. It’s part of our culture,” he said. “It’s rare that you meet someone who doesn’t know what ‘The Sound of Music’ is, or at least doesn’t know a couple of the tunes from it. To be able to share that at this particular time, it feels like a tremendous honor.”
This current tour stop will bring another level of complexity. For the first time in his 20 years in theater, television and film, Davis is returning to his hometown to perform as he portrays the stern yet loving father Captain Georg von Trapp in the musical.
Davis, who graduated from Lawrence North High School and Butler University, has been working in professional theater since 1996. He has starred in Broadway shows, including “Violet,” “A Little Night Music” and “Les Miserábles.”
Most memorably, he was part of the Broadway version of the Puccini opera “La Boheme,” led by visionary director Baz Luhrmann. The entire cast was named a Tony Honoree for Excellence in 2003.
In addition, Davis has been featured in television shows such as “30 Rock” and “Numb3rs,” as well as the film version of “The Magic Flute,” directed by Kenneth Branagh.
As he prepares for his homecoming, Davis took some time to reflect on his career and tackling an iconic role.
What does it mean to come back to your hometown to perform this show?
It’s a show I’m incredibly proud of, a show that everyone can come see and take away from it something unique to who they are and where they are in their life, and where this country is now. Because I grew up in Indianapolis and had so much support from people there, it’s fun to come back, and hopefully they feel some kind of satisfaction seeing me up there.
What it is like for you taking part in a national tour and traveling to perform like this?
It’s a lot of fun, because this country is so huge and there are so many people in it that we get different reactions in different parts of the country. That’s always fun to see, how it reaches people differently.
How did you try to approach your character of Georg von Trapp?
Over time, the character can become very one-dimensional; I think of him as being very angry and stoic and authoritarian. But that doesn’t give the whole picture of who he is and why he is that way. So I hope what we’ve added is some more dimensions and more humanity. This was a guy who has lost his wife and now has these seven children, who are a constant reminder of that life lost.
So many people love “The Sound of Music.” What has it been like performing such a well-known musical?
It’s amazing, because we don’t have to do anything to get the audience’s attention right away. The audience comes in loving the piece, so you have a head start. The great thing about this production is that (director) Jack O’Brien doesn’t screw with that. He knows what the formula is, and doesn’t try to adjust that. But he also gives the audiences something they didn’t expect.
Why does that work?
I liken it to a jazz singer singing The (Great) American Songbook. As an audience member, you want to hear the melody that you love. But you also want to hear that singer’s particular take on it — the little inflections, the little phrasing they do, without obfuscating the melody too much. That’s what (O’Brien) has done.
Looking back, what drew you toward the theater in the first place?
I grew up in sports and being a jock. My sophomore year, I quit basketball; I had a bit of an attitude problem, and as you know, you don’t just quit basketball in Indiana. For whatever, I always used to sing in the back of the bus, usually to try to get girls. It usually repelled more than attracted them. Mom knew I liked to sing, and she was very supportive of me doing this and that. So I auditioned for the school musical my junior year.
How did that work out?
The theater teacher didn’t quite know what to do with me, but they cast me as one of the leads in it. When you’re that age, and people are telling you you’re good at something, you begin to explore that a little more. The more I explored it, the more I felt I had an aptitude for it. The theater is such an amazing place, because you become family so quickly. That was immediately attractive to me.
Throughout your career, what have been some of the more challenging roles that you’ve had?
Probably the most challenging was doing “La Boheme.” I had never done a full opera before. Even though my voice teacher at Butler had trained me classically, I had never done that. Just learning the Italian, even for the audition, was daunting. I was on the road with “Les Miserábles” at the time, so I was doing a lot of it on my own, doing recordings and trying to mimic what I heard.
Do you have a favorite role that you’ve done?
Again, “La Boheme” was incredibly special because of the circumstances, because of Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin, who are just an amazing creative force together. But this show, “The Sound of Music,” is just stunning. The sets and the lighting and the costumes are just amazing, in much the same way “La Boheme” was. Visually sumptuous.
The Sound of Music
What: Part of the national tour of the beloved Broadway musical, starring Indianapolis native Ben Davis as Georg von Trapp.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Murat Theatre at Old National Centre, 502 N. New Jersey St., Indianapolis
- 7:30 p.m. tonight
- 8 p.m. Friday
- 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
- 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Ticket prices: $33 to $88
Where to get them: indianapolis.broadway.com