As Bill Kenwright brings the UK alive with The Sound of Music, we talk to musical theatre star Emilie Fleming about playing the iconic role of Maria, ahead of show's arrival at the Opera House this February.
For anyone who doesn’t know The Sound of Music, what is it about?
Well, it’s a story about brave men and women who love music, love to sing and carry a lot of hope with them in times of fear and doubt. It’s extremely moving because there’s so much truth in it.
It’s about Maria, who gives her life to the church. It doesn’t go as planned and she’s sent away to be governess to the von Trapp family. She falls in love with her employer, Captain von Trapp, and he falls in love with her.
What made you want to be a part of the production?
I’ve been longing to do a Rogers and Hammerstein musical since I graduated. I love their music. I grew up listening and singing along to it. My family always shared a love of that genre and style of music with me and my voice really suits it. It’s simple but so detailed at the same time. It’s true, colourful, emotional and not overcomplicated.
The Sound of Music doesn’t come around very often, so this was an amazing opportunity.
It’s such a classic favourite; people just know they’re going to enjoy it, that they’re going to have a good time.
You’re right, The Sound of Music is such a well-loved musical. Do you remember when you first saw it?
Oh gosh, I couldn’t tell you what age I was. I know that I was very young and I watched it over and over and over again. Surely at least twice a year for a long time. You can watch it a million times and it doesn’t get old.
Maria is an iconic role. How do you feel about playing her?
I’m just in awe of Julie Andrews. Once you’ve watched her in the film, she is Maria. When you see her portray this role, there’s just so much detail. You can hear every single detail of every single word. I definitely take all of that in my own journey as well, vocally. She’s in me.
But my incredible singing teacher told me: “Emilie, this is definitely daunting, but you’ve got to look at it as if it’s fresh.” She’s right. You’ve got to look at it this way because there’s no way I or anyone could impersonate Julie Andrews. You’ve got to share it from your own heart and soul.
The show is packed with many fantastic songs – Do-Re-Mi, Climb Ev’ry Mountain, My Favourite Things. Do you have a favourite?
I do. It’s actually the reprise of Sixteen Going on Seventeen. It’s just Maria and the eldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl; a moment for a woman to speak to another woman in a really kind and generous way. She’s reflecting with Liesl and I think it’s really powerful to see where she’s come from; you can see the whole arc of her journey.
How do you feel about taking the production on tour around the UK?
This is my first tour, so I am excited. I am definitely a bit of a nomad. I’ve moved house a lot and I’m very good at packing, so I feel I’ll be good at it.
Touring is so important. I grew up in a working class family in South Shields and I couldn’t afford to come down to London. I’ll never forget when I saw Miss Saigon at the Sunderland Empire and I cried the whole way home in the car. If I didn’t have those shows touring to local venues, I may never have discovered that I wanted to perform.
I think it’s hugely important to encourage the new generation going forwards, to expose them to theatre and music..
...because more and more music and the arts is being cut in schools, so we’ve really got to take the tours to as many venues as possible across the whole country. There’s so much talent out there, but it all comes down to seeing performances; that’s what triggers the inspiration.
You’re probably still best known as one of the contestants from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for an actor to play Dorothy, Over the Rainbow. How was that experience?
It was mind-blowing. I still look at it and think “Did that happen?” It was, obviously, overwhelming. You’re very young. You’re still working out who you are, so it’s quite an odd experience. But it was a fantastic one; one the contestants all shared that not many people experience.
We’re always crossing paths, us Dorothys.
Actually, I didn’t really want to go to the audition because I already had a place at Guildford School of Acting. It was my sister that really wanted to go, but she was too young. My Mum said: “One of you has to go, this is an amazing opportunity.” So I ended up going!
And rather than using the TV appearance as a springboard to launch your career, you still took up your place a drama school. Why did you make that decision?
I wasn’t ready for the industry at all. There was no part of me that felt ready. If anything, the whole Dorothy experience was a wake-up call that I really needed to train. I was 18! I didn’t know what I was doing!
When I went to GSA, it was odd for me because at drama school everyone says you need to fall down, you need to make mistakes, that’s what you’re there for. I really struggled with that because I’d been performing live in front of 7 million people for several weeks and I couldn’t make mistakes, I had to be good. That took me a long time to adjust to.
What do you think it is that makes the live nature of theatre so special?
Technology is great, and we’ve got a huge array of entertainment at our fingertips, but there’s something special in that human connection that we all have a need for. And there’s the danger of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s so exciting.
The Sound of the Music is at the Opera House Tuesday 18 February – Saturday 22 February 2020. Book tickets here.