From screen to stage for a song


Most people know Richard Chamberlain from his TV roles, but the veteran actor has made a second career with Broadway musical revivals.

September 19, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When Richard Chamberlain thinks of Baltimore, he thinks of the place that made him feel the most like a pop star.

The time was September 1962, the height of his popularity in the title role of the hit NBC TV series, "Dr. Kildare" -- popularity that elicited 12,000 fan letters a week. The place was Patterson Park, and the event was a combined celebration of several patriotic holidays, which attracted 400,000 spectators. Chamberlain was honorary grand marshal of the parade.

"I was sitting up in these sort of temporary bleachers, and the crowd was across the street," he recalls. "I started waving and winking at some of the women, and it started a semi-riot. They started streaming across the street. The police surrounded me. There's a sort of lake and they got me on this boat and rescued me from those crazed fans. Those were the days."

The 64-year-old actor has returned to Baltimore several times since then, most recently in a 1987 pre-Broadway production of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." On Tuesday, he will be back -- this time playing Captain von Trapp in the national tour of the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" at the Lyric Opera House.

To those who know Chamberlain only for his TV work -- whether as Kildare or as the actor is often dubbed, "the king of the mini- series" ("Shogun," "The Thorn Birds," etc.) -- his singing might come as a surprise. However, as he pointed out in a phone conversation from Minneapolis, the first stop on the 40-week "The Sound of Music" tour, "I've been studying singing my whole career, mainly to keep my speaking voice in shape."

Indeed, Chamberlain cut a couple of albums during his Kildare days. After the series ended its five-year run, he sang in summer stock (including an appearance as Tony in "West Side Story" at the former Painters Mill Music Fair). And in 1993 he starred as Henry Higgins in a Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady."

"I was surprised at what a strong singer he was," remarks "Sound of Music" director Susan H. Schulman, who says Chamberlain's "wonderful presence and sense of period and real authority" made him her first choice for the role. "I think he's a natural singer, which I think is very important for the character. When he starts to sing, he sounds like a real human being."

Chamberlain made his Broadway debut starring in a musical, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Little more than a footnote in Broadway history, the show closed in previews. "It was a very, very difficult experience because I had experienced nothing up to that point but success, and when that happened I was really broken up about it," he says.

Co-starring Mary Tyler Moore, the musical version of Truman Capote's novella was one of the most eagerly awaited shows of the 1966-1967 season. But as Ken Mandelbaum recounts in his book, "Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Musical Flops on Broadway," New York audiences not only walked out, they talked back to the cast.

One incident still stings in the actor's memory: "There was a place in the show where [Chamberlain's character] said, 'I can't sing anymore,' and somebody stood up and said, 'Good, good, you can't sing anyway.' "

Nearly 30 years passed before he returned to the Broadway musical stage in "My Fair Lady." After the rigors of that show, which also included a tour, Chamberlain announced he would think twice before starring in another revival. Yet here he is, receiving top billing in "The Sound of Music."

"It's a somewhat easier part," he explains. "I have less songs now and less scenes and less ranting. It's altogether a pleasanter experience, a more enjoyable experience and less of a workhorse experience." (The von Trapp governess, Maria, is portrayed by Meg Tolin, who also played the role opposite him on Broadway.)

At the same time, Chamberlain continues, "I did underestimate it. I thought it was going to be a lark. It turns out, in its own way, it's very difficult. Any time you play musical material it's difficult because the scenes are thinly written, very terse, very quick. ... You have to be on your toes to make this stuff work and keep the audience from incredulity."

"It is a part that's underestimated," says director Schulman. "People think the captain doesn't do that much. He's very rarely offstage, actually. Once you play the role, you understand you don't have that much time in the dressing room to relax."

It helps that Chamberlain identifies with at least one aspect of Captain von Trapp's nature -- his initial emotional reticence. "I was a real shy kind of withdrawn kid," the actor says. "The most interesting thing to me in life is the process of opening one's heart. So I love characters who have this problem and take this journey."

Over the years, Chamberlain has worked to overcome his lack of self-confidence through various types of therapy -- "spiritual groups, Rolfing, all that stuff that Californians do. Some of it's been very, very valuable," says the Los Angeles native, who now lives on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

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