Last year, actress Billie Wildrick delighted audiences as Mother in the Ordway’s production of A Christmas Story. When the snows vanished, however, Wildrick was off to Seattle, where musicals about escaping from factory work, drinking, and more drinking awaited. Now, with snow returning, Wildrick herself has returned to play the role of Maria von Trapp in the Ordway’s production of the iconic musical The Sound of Music. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with Wildrick to discuss her career, The Sound of Music, and vocal health.
Seattle is your home base, correct?
Yes. I’ve popped in and out of New York from time to time, but I think of it like Chutes and Ladders in Candyland – in New York, you can go up and down and back and forward, but hear [in Seattle] you can make circles.
What was the process that led you to being cast in the Ordway’s production of The Sound of Music?
I did Christmas Story last year for the Ordway… I knew that they were doing Sound of Music and I sort of clocked it in my head. I have just been dying to play Maria for a while, so I pursued it. I sort of dropped my hat in the ring and, every once in a while, I’d say, “Hey, can I audition? Would you like to see me audition?” Eventually they let me send in a video, so I sent in an unethically long video audition video and it worked out.
Who were you bugging?
You name them, I was bugging them. I was a pretty pushy penguin for this, since I so wanted to do it. I was bugging James [Rocco, VP of Programming at the Ordway], I was bugging Gary [Briggle, the show’s musical director], I was bugging the casting director… Just, you know little nudges, like, “Hey…I just wanna try!” [and] “Hey, hey – can I try?”
What did you submit for your video audition?
I submitted four different songs, a couple sides, and I added, “By the way, I can play the guitar!” and included a little snippet of me playing the guitar and I even used stuffed animals for novelty for “[The Lonely] Goatherd.” I thought it would be fun to do a sort of puppetry situation, all by myself in my apartment…I had such a good time!
You had a few stuffed animals around for props.
Yeah…to play the goatherd and the little girl in a pale pink coat. Everyone works better with scene partners.
So you sent in your audition; how long was it before you heard back?
They were so nice and I immediately got a “Thank you so much. This is wonderful; we’re having a meeting on Sunday.” And then on Sunday, I got a call and I got really excited. I took screen shots of the email and sent it to my family.
As turnarounds go, that is refreshingly and comfortingly brief.
Yeah, it was; they said Sunday and it was Sunday. But I had been in some ways pursuing the role for a year.
Now you realize at this point you might not actually get a Christmas present per sé from the Ordway, because they might just say, “Okay, well, you know, this show is our ‘thank you’ for A Christmas Story. If you get anything more, it’s likely to be one of those novelty lamps.
[Laughs] I’m good, I’m good. I feel I’m good for several Christmas’s worth of presents for this role. It’s just the coolest.
You mentioned that this is a role that you’ve dreamed about playing for a while. When did you first tell your parents that your dream was to join a nunnery?
[Laughs]. I did Sound of Music 13 years ago; I played Liesl. I auditioned for Maria at the time, but I remember looking at the sides and they just didn’t make sense – I couldn’t get them to come out of my face naturally. I just couldn’t connect to the character. But with Liesl, I was all over it. I was 24 going on 25, then, but Maria?
I guess my maternal instinct kicked in in the last few years and I just got so excited about the prospect of getting to play with seven kids. They’re just the greatest scene partners…they take a lot, but they just give so generously on stage. It’s so much fun, it’s so joyful.
I just spent four months playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which is a much less joyful thing to do. It was very fulfilling artistically, but oof! I look forward to escaping from the Nazis this time.
Was this the post-movie version of Cabaret, with Sally Bowles as a much more substantial character?
Yes. We did all the add-on tunes, like “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama”… There’s three versions: the one Cliff is straight, the one where he’s bisexual, and the one where he’s gay. We did the one where he’s bisexual.
You really have to choose your your version when you license it – they say, “Choose which one you want.”
Do you feel like you feel you’re living in the 1930s?
It’s funny – I started the year with Carousel, then I did Cabaret, and right now I’m doing a show where I’m a femme fatale in a ’30s gin joint. And then I’m going to go to Sound of Music so it is a whole year in the 30s.
What is the current show?
It’s a show called Sauced. We have a really great venue here in Seattle called Café Nordo. And it’s not dinner theater per sé, it’s a sort of a really sophisticated version where they pair the theatrical experience to the fine dining and craft cocktail experience. The food is very much a part of the show.
We do some [song] standards here, but there’s a wonderful composer here named Annastasia Workman, who writes beautiful music that I get to sing for this. It’s a noir tale where I just come in and create chaos and there’s a secret elixir and it’s really fun.
Okay, so the next time I talk with Gary Briggle and with James Rocco, I should warn them that you’re spreading the “secret elixir” around backstage and spreading chaos.
Yes. That I’m going to bring chaos to the process.
Something that’s fun about working “in the regions” is how much you get to be a chameleon. You get to be really flexible and you can play a character like Carrie Pipperidge [in Carousel] and Sally Bowles [in Cabaret] back to back, and it’s really fun.
I’m just going to spin this as a reform arc. After your days in the Cabaret, you got royally sloshed in Sauced, and then your family sent you to a nunnery to reform, and somehow you end up with seven kids [in Sound of Music].
Yes, it’s quite a tale. The last time I was in St. Paul [for A Christmas Story], I was a mother of two kids. I’ve been on quite the adventure.
You’ve mentioned that this is a role that you’ve looked forward to playing for a long time and wanted to play. How did you first encounter the Sound of Music?
I must’ve seen the film first, but when I was very little. I wasn’t a theatre kid, but I did do a stint of children’s theater in Gross Point, Michigan. I didn’t play a Von Trapp child, I understudied Marta. Since it was such a children’s theater thing, they had kids go out with Maria on the hills in the beginning. [laughs] So she sang “The Hills Are Alive” to random children.
I was 7, but the other two kids were 4 and 5. So my mom (for whom this was her one big stage role – she played Fraulein Schweiger, the one who bows a lot) dubbed me “The Oaf Who Stalks the Hills” because I was twice the size of the other children. That was my first role – “The Oaf Who Stalks the Hills.”
But you came back to the musical…eventually.
The music that R&H [Rodgers & Hammerstein] did, that classic Broadway music that Kander & Ebb wrote, [and] Lerner & Lowe…that’s what my voice is built for. That’s what I’ve always loved. That’s what I trained to do, and with these pop shows that are popular now…I feel a sort of homecoming about the whole thing, vocally.
I realized when I was playing Mother in A Christmas Story last year just how much I’ve changed since last time I did Sound of Music and how unready I was – how I couldn’t wrap my head around the sides when I was twenty four. How it just didn’t come out of me naturally [then], and then how how naturally I took to the kids in Christmas Story [just last year]. How how much I loved it and how much help and great scene partners they were. It just lit a fire under me to pursue the role.
What was your vocal training like?
My mom put me in voice lessons when I was eight or nine I did the this quick little stint. I mean. Legend has it that I was singing before I could walk. It’s just been a sort of natural way I express myself. It’s been a language that I know as opposed to a thing that I do and learn to do. That’s just a natural superhighway to my heart or something.
My mom put me in voice lessons with a classical voice teacher; I remember that she asked me who my my vocal idols were. I think I told her “Julie Andrews” and “Barbara Streisand”; she said, “Well, Julie Andrews is a good one, but Barbra Streisand not so much.” I’m really grateful for that – a lot of those kids [that I was singing with in shows] who were belting got nodes within a year, but she taught me to strengthen my voice and sing in a really healthy way.
I didn’t come back around to learning how to belt until I did Cabaret in college. And I remember when it was a big deal to belt an A. I remember when my voice teacher, who was classically trained, and I had to figure out how to belt it healthily.
You had more than one of cabaret adventure, then, if you will.
Yes. I have visited Berlin more than once. I was terrible the first time, I’m sure of it. [laughs]
Were you playing Sally again?
I was playing Sally. I’m slow – it takes me awhile to get things, but I really get them when I get them.
It’s funny how how long it takes you as an actor to learn, “Oh, you want me to just be a person.” You try to do all the stuff you like, “Oh how to redefine, “How are you?” and then suddenly the penny drops, and you realize, “Oh, I just need to pretend to be this person” …which seems the simplest thing, but…
Now, do you have children yourself?
So with your various experiments in parenting…you can always give the kids back at the end.
Yes. I do have 37 house plants – very good and thriving.
That sounds like a lot of watering while you’re out of town.
My mom will come take care of my children… I talk to them, I sing to them; I’m really looking forward to someday playing Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever [who sings to plants]…I feel like I have a personal connection.
Have you kept up your voice studies over the years?
I still go to my teacher for tuneups, for sure. And I still religiously do a vocal warm up before shows of all kinds. I really value healthy instruments. I take in pride in that I don’t tend to go out or have issues.
When you are away from home and residing in a place like St. Paul for the run of a show, do you regulate what you do and when you go out to protect the instrument?
I travel with my NetiPot and my Flonase to keep away all the regional allergies that you don’t anticipate, and I always travel with my steamer. And I still always do my warmups.
What do you see as the challenges of playing Maria – both in general and for you personally?
It’s such an iconic role. It’s been played by two really spectacular actresses who managed to put such an individual stamp on it. So many people come in with the expectation “I’ve seen it a million times and Julie Andrews’s Maria is like this and she does these things.” And it’s always difficult to make sure that you’re not aping a thing, but also not trying to just do something different.
Those two icons you referred to are Julie Andrews and Mary Martin, or from one of the revival casts?
Yes. Mary Martin and Julie Andrews – not Carrie Underwood.
I was thinking Rebecca Luker-
I love Rebecca Luker!
When you approach a new role, especially one like this that you know the music for already, what is your process of preparation like once you’re cast and before you show up for rehearsal?
I like to at least have a really good working knowledge of the text and the score when I show up. But I do believe as a director that the beauty of theatre and the reason you can keep doing these shows over and over again is that it’s truly a collaborative sport. And frankly there’s no other art form that is more collaborative than theatre. In theatre, you’re still dealing with the composer and conductor and all these musicians and a choreographer and so on. There’s just so many people who come into the room with a creative stake, as opposed to a sculptor who comes in the room and there’s the clay and the clay just does what he wants it to do.
I like to be prepared with my basic understanding of what happens: where the beats are and what the notes are, and then be really open to what Gary [Briggle, the music director] has to say and what Dieter [Bierbrauer, playing costar Captain von Trapp] brings to the table, and what Caroline [Innerbichler, playing Liesl von Trapp] brings to the table – and to make sure that I haven’t decided what my performance is going to be like. That it is a live performance that exists in the world, with these people.