Monday morning. First up. That scene. That song.
I fortify myself with a super-large latte, which Amy, a woman of many secret skills, has taught me to order via a spiffy app whilst still in transit, so as to skip the queue of hundreds of early morning commuters all desperate for a caffeine fix. I must admit, I always feel like a rock star as the awesome guys at Knight’s coffee wave at me on approach and say ‘There you go, Jacqui – all ready!’. So long, 15 minute wait. Mother Abbess sends huge blessings to Sister Maria of the Immaculate Espresso – you may henceforth sing in the abbey as a reward for this glorious gift of Java.
I know this is going to be an intense rehearsal. This was the scene I performed with Amy in our audition. It killed me then. It will kill me now.
It is the scene where Maria returns to the abbey, running away from the confusion and messiness of life and love, and the Mother Abbess gently advises her that she cannot run away from her problems, but must stand up and face them. That she must find the life she was born to live. The whole show is beautifully written, and this scene is utterly brilliant. It is simple and real and speaks to a vulnerable place in all of us, transporting us back to every time we had to make the choice of whether to take the safer road or to stand and face our fears and fight for our dreams, reminding us that there are some crossroads in life where you have to stand tall and be brave and fight your dragons, or you will always wonder what could have been.
In preparation for the inevitable, I grab a handful of tissues from the box on the stage management table and position them in an artful pile on my onstage desk as we begin the scene. It’s an odd thing – as an opera singer, I usually sing far more than I speak, but in music theatre that ratio is reversed. Spoken dialogue feels exciting and immediate and scary, and I am so fortunate that our director Gavin is incredibly supportive of me, and patient as we experiment with the myriad permutations and different directions that this scene could take. It has to come from the heart and we have to find our own truth within the words. There are tears. Multiple times. Seriously – I was a big enough sook before I had a child, but now I seem to well up watching RTA ads. Is that a thing or is it just me? Thinking of my little boy actually helps in a devastating kind of way, and Gavin is brilliant at encouraging me to draw on this. This scene is pretty much the crux of motherhood – encouraging your child to have courage and find their own true path in the world, even as you want to hug them close, keep them safe from heartbreak and never let them go. It’s about wisdom and bravery and letting go – for both characters. It’s gorgeous. The tissues come in handy.
After a quick duck to the toilets to wipe the rivulets of mascara off my face, we set the ‘pre-wedding’ scene, where the nuns make the final preparations for Maria’s marriage to The Captain. Our Children’s Director Jonny Bowles (no, that that one, but isn’t it a fabulous name? He’s also a fabulous guy with a fabulous accent, so really not too tough to work with.), who has toured this production internationally, tells us that the scene’s nickname is ‘Busy Nuns’, as the whole scene basically consists of … busy nuns. It also fits with the music – if you know the section of How Do You Solve a Problem that goes ‘when I’m with her I’m confused …’, sing that tune to the words ‘ busy busy busy nuns, busy busy busy nuns…’. It fits perfectly and sets the tone of the scene brilliantly. It’s also an earworm that none of us can now get rid of. You’re welcome.
We add Climb Every Mountain to the final scene, to finish Act 1. The song speaks for itself, and my only challenge to myself (apart from the superhuman breaths) is my determination to make the song emerge organically from the scene. It’s tricky with ‘hit songs’ – the trap is to get to the introduction and relax into the familiar music and treat it as a world apart. My feeling is that before this was a hit song, it was written to reinforce this scene. The lyrics are beautiful and poignant, and reflect everything the Mother Abbess is trying to impress on Maria incredibly poetically. The line “A dream that will need all the love you can give” slays me every time. As a performer, it’s the story of my life, and the story of so many other aspects of my life. I love this song. It is an old favourite, but it is also incredibly relevant today and speaks to the dreamer and the courageous heart in all of us. I love the direction of this scene, and I love Gavin’s commitment to leading me to find my own truth within it. I could not ask for a better ally in bringing the best out of me and challenging me to experiment and be fearless. We are so lucky to have him on our team!
Media call day. We’re ushered into Rehearsal Room 2 while the awaiting media congregate in the main rehearsal room, and we’re then brought in to a whirlwind of TV and still cameras, journalists with notepads and a huge boom microphone hanging over the whole proceedings. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. Craig Donnell introduces us on behalf of the producers and then Gavin chats to the media and leads us into our first number – the nun’s chorus from the very beginning of the show, Dixit Dominus. It is a beautiful, simple piece of music, with the Mother Abbess leading a call and response prayer with the rest of the cast. I love the feedback we receive later – that it gave people shivers and goosebumps and the odd tear. Bravo, team!
This is followed up with Amy and the kids of the Purple cast (there are three groups of kids – the Purple, Blue and Green teams – who alternate rehearsals) singing Do Re Mi. It is as wonderful as always and receives rousing applause. I’m standing around beaming – I’m so proud to be a part of this show! We repeat each number several times so that the cameras can catch what they need, and then some cast members hang around for interviews with various media folk.
Off for a break, and then we finish setting the wedding scene and the big Allelujah chorus. Every day is filled with setting new scenes and consolidating old ones. My brain is full to bursting but very, very happy!
Today is music call day in the convent, where we work through all the nuns’ musical numbers. We have periodic music calls with Peter and Luke, to run through the musical numbers and check on rhythm, pitch and dynamics. It’s an incredibly useful reminder session and keeps us all tight as an ensemble.
The swings continue to race from room to room trying to note down the different plots of their various roles. Their scripts look like complicated hieroglyphic scrawls as they develop a shorthand for differentiating between each different character they have to cover. I continue to be astonished by how much they are managing to stuff into their brains! These guys are seriously the unsung heroes of any long-running production, and the reason that the show continues to go on every single night. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
We revisit the wedding scene to consolidate our blocking, and then I’m bustled off to a photo shoot. It is HOT! It’s a 42 degree stinker in Sydney. I have my makeup done, trying in vain to get the makeup artist to give me smoky eyes, glitter and full lashes, but apparently that’s not appropriate for a nun. Sigh. I then don my habit. Did I mention that it’s hot today? We crank up the fan! I ask what this photo shoot is for and am told that it’s for my poster outside the theatre. Gulp. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! The photo shoot is great fun, as I assume a wide variety of reverent poses (and some bloopers which will no doubt give whoever has to wade through them all a giggle) and try not to sweat too much under my wimple. Lorraine and Marina have their shoots after me … and let me just say that if my feet were a size smaller, Marina may have had some *ahem* ‘trouble’ locating her show shoes. They are GORGEOUS but unfortunately a little too dainty for my clodhoppers.
Today is a huge day! Everyone is called all day for a stop and start working session of as much of the show we can get through. These days are always gruelling but incredibly useful, as you repeat scenes and pull them apart, looking to lock in the best version. It’s gorgeous to have everyone in the room together! It’s wonderful to watch all the scenes we’ve never seen before, and exciting and terrifying to perform your scenes for the first time in front of your colleagues. The excitement level rises as we watch the show begin to take shape and grow, and see where our pieces of the puzzle fit into the grand scheme of things. The performances are uniformly strong and there is such a huge heart to the show already. Cameron Daddo must be one of the most underrated actors to come out of this country – he is gorgeous in this role and brings his whole heart to it! David James as Max has one of the loudest voices I have ever heard and is a wonderful actor. Marina Prior and Lorraine Bayley were born to play their roles. Stefanie Jones and Du Toit Bredenkamp are an absolute delight as Liesl and Rolf. Every single role is cast perfectly, and if you get that right at the outset (which they definitely have!), everything falls into place with an elegant ease. We get to the Act 1 finale later in the day and the inevitable tears brim as I finish the beautiful final scene and segue into Climb Every Mountain. By the time I finish, I’m crying and shaking and hoping that something I did was vaguely close to what I was supposed to do. It was utterly gorgeous to watch the whole cast (including the kids, who were sitting in their teams along the front of the room, watching everything with eyes full of wonder) reach for the tissues. The day finished with hugs all round.
Today was incredibly special. The Sound of Music nuns were invited to spend some time with the sisters of Jamberoo Abbey, two hours south of Sydney. Peter Casey had taken the nuns from the previous Australian production of Sound of Music on this trip 15 years ago, and had kindly organised a return visit for us. We assembled early in the morning and bundled ourselves blearily into the bus, clutching huge buckets of coffee (this is becoming a running theme, I know!). None of us knew what to expect, but there was an expectant buzz in the air. Off we set, and two hours later we were pulling into the beautiful, tree-lined entrance to the abbey. As soon as we arrived, we were treated to coffee and an incredible afternoon tea baked by ‘Officer of Hospitality’ Sister Therese, and had the opportunity to chat with the nuns. The conversation was rich and beautiful, with most of it too personal to share here, as the sisters shared stories of their lives in the abbey and how their journeys had brought them here. The day in the abbey begins at 4:30am (ruling me out right there!), and basically consists of alternating prayers in church and periods of personal reflection, before silence reigns at 7pm. I love that, upon being told that she was incredibly disciplined in this life, one of the sisters replied “We don’t think of it as discipline; we think of it as rhythm. The rhythm of the day.” I thought this was a beautiful way to look at it. The nuns then headed to their church to pray. They told us that the whole wall of the church behind the altar was glass, as their job was to pray for the world, and their prayers could fly out through this wall and find their homes across the globe. Again, a truly beautiful image. A short time later, we followed them into the church, where we sang the Dixit Dominus from the show for them. It was such a beautiful moment, and obviously touched them deeply – watching their radiant faces was an absolute joy! We then sang several more of the nuns’ pieces for them, and then they all left the pews and gathered opposite us, raising their hands to us and singing a gentle blessing. It was absolutely incredible and there were many, many tears from our side, with most of us feeling a deep peace and humility in the face of such gentle dedication. They then told us that when we went back to rehearsals and later out onto the stage, we could know that they’d be here praying for us. Not coming from a religious background myself, this thought was still very beautiful to me – that these new friends we’d just met would be up here in their home and sending all of their best wishes winging our way.
The time had come for us to leave the abbey. Every one of us had a new-found appreciation of our lives and our independence, and a determination to hold onto the feeling of deep peace we had discovered here. As we said our farewells one of my favourite moments happened: One of the sisters sidled up to us and said “Isn’t that man Daddo in your show? Cameron?” When we nodded that he was, she whispered “Ooooh – bring HIM with you next time!”, and then giggled like a schoolgirl and looked around to make sure that no