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For Ashley Blanchet, The Sound of Music Is Packing More Nostalgia Than Usual

Blanchet stars as Maria in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at Paper Mill Playhouse.

The Sound of Music may be set in Austria, but if America were to ever establish a national musical, it would be the one to slide in cozily next to the Bald Eagle and "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's a show even non-theater folk can (and do) sing along to. And this year, it's filling the holiday slot at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse with Ashley Blanchet leading the charge as Fräulein Maria — the almost-nun-turned-governess-turned-stepmother-of-seven who returns music to the dour von Trapp household on the eve of the Anschluss.

Of course, as in any Sound of Music, there's no escaping the shadow of Julie Andrews. However, Blanchet seems to have become artistic director Mark S. Hoebee's go-to talent for Julie Andrews properties, bringing her back to Paper Mill after her pre-pandemic turn as Ella in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Wending her way from ensemble dancer to principal performer, she has been working steadily on Broadway for over a decade in shows like Waitress, Frozen, and Beautiful. You may have also seen her earlier this year as a satirical "Miss New Hampshire" in the off-Broadway premiere of Sarah Silverman's musical comedy The Bedwetter.

Returning to such a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score feels a lot like slipping on a pair of warm woolen mittens. And yet, the musical's relevant political underpinnings and the sweeping orchestral score (now landing on grateful post-pandemic ears) are making Blanchet and her castmates experience the musical with fresh eyes and ears. "I think it all touches us in nostalgic ways that we weren't ready for," says Blanchet after a few weeks in the rehearsal room. "It hits different."

Ashley Blanchet as Maria in The Sound of Music, running through January 1, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The last show you did at Paper Mill before The Sound of Music was Cinderella in 2019. Did you ever expect to become the Julie Andrews of Paper Mill Playhouse?
Never. I loved Julie Andrews as a child. I watched everything that she was in. I even wrote her a letter that was like, "I really want to do this when I get older…Ms. Andrews, please would you send me an autographed copy of your picture?" It's like misspelled and everything. [laughs] Anyway, Maria — a blonde-haired blue-eyed person — was never something that I thought that I would be able to do. For me, that was a lot of musicals. I am so appreciative of casting offices saying to me, "Have you ever thought of doing this? Do you want to come in for this?" It is meaningful for me to even say, "I guess I do relate to this." I was always connected to this show as a kid, but I never dreamed that I'd be able to play Maria. So it's kind of an adjustment in my head.

Regardless of who she's playing, Julie Andrews characters always seem to emerge with an air of perfection. Do you feel like that quality has to be part of your Maria?
That's the Julie Andrews essence, but what's funny about this part is — and this is something I relate to her about — is she's completely not perfect. She is a rebel from the very beginning. What's so funny is that rebelliousness is the thing that allows her to connect with the children, and in the end, it allows her to get safely away from Nazis. Her ability to be the strange person, the weirdo, the person that's all alone in the hills by herself, is what allows her to say, Wait a minute. I know those hills. I know those mountains. Follow me. For 1959, that is a really empowered female role that they wrote. That's fun to play, even in 2022. It's really fun to not have to take an old piece and disassemble it and be like, "Here's what we're gonna mean now, even if it's not what they meant in the 1950s." We haven't had to do any of that, which I think is a testament to the writing of the piece. In fact, I think it rings more true today than it has for the past 50 years.

Graham Rowat and Ashley Blanchet as Captain Georg von Trapp and Maria Rainer.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Which moments in the show have stood out the most to you in that way?
There's this moment where the Captain is singing "Edelweiss" — it took me by surprise the other day in rehearsal. As he's trying to escape the Nazis, he's singing "bless my homeland forever." It's almost like a loving goodbye and prayer to this country that he feels so patriotic toward even though these bad guys have taken over politically. I think that's such an interesting feeling of being nostalgic and patriotic in a time when it's sort of difficult to feel patriotic sometimes.

That's so true. We think of The Sound of Music as a fun holiday show with kids, but there's more to it than that.
Absolutely. It's a family holiday show but with so much more substance than you think. Everybody knows every single song so well. I think we've all been surprised by how much we're taken aback by each number and each moment. I was thinking so much about how they're leaving because their government has been changing. There's a mirror effect happening for us where we're feeling this nostalgia by listening to this music [while also] relating to the whole idea of what's going on in our political arena. We're all in an uncomfortable place there too.

The von Trapp children of Paper Mill Playhouse
(© Jeremy Daniel)

I can't let you go without asking how it's been working with all the von Trapp children.
Actually, you know what's so funny? In [the 2012 Broadway] production of Annie [where I played "Star to Be"], Sadie Sink was the understudy for Annie. She's in Stranger Things and is a big movie star now, and her sister Jacey, who was a toddler when we were doing Annie, is now playing Louisa in this production. So the last time I saw Jacey, she was a toddler!

I love working with kids in general. They bring this genuine excitement to something that all of us jaded people have been doing for 20-30 years. This fresh energy is really important when what we're supposed to be doing is in the rehearsal room is saying, Let's try this, and being sort of mischievous about it. I think they're helping us find our own version of this play. And it's fun to sort of present them with it and be like, "These are our traditions." And musical theater is our tradition. You know what I mean? I don't relate to this Austrian clothing or any of these Austrian traditions, but musical theater is our tradition. It's something that we came up with in this country, it's something that I believe we do better than anyone else in the world, and I think that people have a connection to it in a way that is kind of patriotic. This particular musical — and musical theater in general — is our country and our traditions. So it does hit home in this very deep way.

Analise Scarpaci as Liesl in a scene with Ashley Blanchet as Maria in The Sound of Music, directed by Mark S. Hoebee.
(© Jeremy Daniel)