One morning a few months ago, Julie Andrews stalked Stephanie Rothenberg.
Rehearsals loomed for the Stratford Festival’s The Sound of Music, and Rothenberg, who plays Maria, could not shake the spectre of one of moviedom’s defining performances.
“That was so scary for me,” she recalled recently, “because that’s the death of an actor. If I have someone else’s voice in my head doing my role that I’m supposed to own as my own, that terrifies me … and it just wasn’t going away, this iconic image of her spinning on the mountaintop.”
To banish Andrews and recover Maria, Rothenberg returned to brass tacks: a line-by-line lyrics breakdown during which she and director Donna Feore penetrated the title song’s personal meaning for her.
“By the end of the hour and a half, when I sang through the song for the first time, [it] became my own, and I have never again heard Julie Andrews’ voice in my head when I’m singing the song. And it’s because we – Donna and I – made it mine.”
Rothenberg’s quandary underscores the popularity of a story first made famous on this side of the Atlantic by a 1959 Broadway production, and carved into celluloid lore in the mid-1960s. The current Stratford production has received raves – for both Rothenberg and the musical generally – and has been extended to Nov. 1.
Rothenberg, 25, guesses that she has seen the movie about 10 times (though not recently), the first time at age seven.
“It was definitely a dream role of mine,” she said. “I think a lot of people would say the same thing that I do, which is I hold this music and this story very dear to my heart. It’s a beautiful story of a love of family and the power of music, and love of country.”
The Maria character, she said, is a study in extremes that Rothenberg finds satisfying.
“I love that she is a bit of a rule breaker and she has an immense heart and this joy that just pours out of her. She is so passionate and so creative.
“And she doesn’t always express herself in the proper way and she doesn’t always do things in the proper way … I love playing that sense of goofiness that she’s not self-aware. She would if she could. She tried to fit into the abbey but you see it’s just impossible for her.”
The trappings of postulant life also stretched familiarity for Rothenberg, whose upbringing in Nashville, Tenn., featured the Jewish version of Sunday school and the synagogue children’s choir.
“It actually feels perfect for the character, because it feels very foreign to me, that habit and looking up to the mother superior in that habit, the cross around my neck. It feels very foreign to me, and I think it feels very foreign to Maria.”
Still, she said, those opening scenes touch a numinous note in other ways.
“My idea of spirituality, that’s the sound of music, that’s the hills are alive, the title song. That sense of gratitude during that song and joy of Maria but also as a person during that number. That’s probably where my spirituality comes in: the nature aspect, and talking to God … Sometimes at the end of a show or the beginning of a show I feel just very thankful to be able to have the capacity to sing this role, to share this art, with audiences and bring them joy.”
Her sharing quotient has spiked in recent years. An actor since the age of eight – she played “boy crazy” Marty in Grease – Rothenberg moved to New York City in 2008 to study drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her big break came via dropping out. In her junior year, she jumped to Broadway and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Eventually, she stepped into the lead female role of Rosemary opposite Nick Jonas.
Rothenberg, who most recently appeared in Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, looks forward to climbing many more mountains.
“I would love to really just be an actor by definition,” she said, “to learn about different people and different experiences, and share it with other people. No matter what medium that’s in, I’m just excited to try all of them.”