The Playbill note on the cast page at the Broadway revival of The Sound of Musicreads: "Michael Siberry is appearing with the permission of Actors' Equity Association pursuant to an exchange program between American Equity and British Equity." That statement usually means quite a fuss went on between producers and American Equity to get a leading man from the U.K. because they feel he's best for the job. And it usually means that actor isn't a star or known by Broadway theatergoers. In the case of Siberry, nothing could be further from the truth. But there's a catch. In his previous Broadway forays, he was a member of a visiting theater company, and for Music, he was coming over as an independent actor.

"Coming on your own is a totally different process," he explained. "And a long, involved one, at that. It depends on how much a production wants you. It takes a lot of effort."

To snag him for von Trapp, the wheels started turning early last summer after he auditioned in London for the show. "Luckily, Susan (H. Schulman, the director) had seen me as Petruchio in The Taming Of The Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare in Stratford," said the actor. "I don't recall if she actually remembered me, or just remembered that she had seen me when I auditioned. But I got called back and then flown to the States to audition for more of the producers. And they offered me the role. No one was more surprised than I. I mean, The Sound of Music on Broadway! A musical! I'd only done one musical, (a revival of 1924's Oh, Kay!). Now, English Equity owes an American actor a role on the West End."

Siberry is here for at least six months. The musical, starring Rebecca Luker as Maria, received mixed reviews but is doing such strong box office, especially among families, that a long run is probable. Of course, Music is hands-down Maria's, but Siberry makes a strong Captain and is not the least bit invisible. In fact, audience members are often overheard during the intermission speaking in warm terms of his portrayal. "It's a wonderful relationship between Maria and the Captain (even if, as he readily admits, it's comes about a bit too quickly in the current revival) and, if you give it its due, it's a fabulous love story."

He says there's not much to the book. "In most musicals, things are said once and then it moves on to a song, so you have to take what's there and make the most of it. Thankfully, there's this good, logical progression to the events. There are no great leaps in the story that make you think, 'How am I going to make this convincing?' What's making it work for me is playing each moment as it comes along."

But all Siberry can do while he's here is The Sound Of Music. Under the exchange rules, he can't audition for other shows or films. "I'm here exclusively to do The Sound of Music.' Sometime soon, courtesy of public TV, we'll see his new series, "The Grand," which is set in a hotel.

Siberry is a recognized star at home, and well known on these shores for his acclaimed Broadway (and on tour) stage work in the title role in the RSC's 1987 The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickelby and Sir Peter Hall's 1990 production of The Merchant Of Venice opposite Dustin Hoffman; and his roles on such public TV imports as "Jeeves and Wooster," "Highlander," "Noble House" and "Sherlock Holmes."

The actor was born in England of an Irish father and English mother. The family migrated to Australia when he was a child. On graduation from school, he attended the National Institute of Dramatic Art, then worked as an actor in South Australia, mostly Adelaide, for two years. "I had lots of relations back in England," said Siberry, "so I was interested in going back. And there was the siren call of English theater."

He returned in 1979 and shortly was accepted into the RSC, where he's been a mainstay in productions such as Richard III, Macbeth, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It and Hamlet.

With that background he'd seem a strange choice to play Captain Georg von Trapp in Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical. "Maybe," Siberry candidly admits, "but, indeed, they wanted me. And I wanted to come. It was time for a return and I do love New York."

There was a problem, however. Von Trapp plays the guitar profusely in the course of the show "and, though I learned classical guitar when I was a schoolboy, I hadn't played since then. And I'd never accompanied myself on a song. So that prospect was a bit scary." Not to worry. The production wanted him badly enough to even send him for several weeks of brush-up guitar lessons. Siberry goes back to a memory of Dustin Hoffman. "In Merchant, he wanted to work with British actors, doing classical theater, and we all wanted to work with an American actor of note to see what he would bring to it. Oddly, we wanted to be like him and he wanted to be like us." Hoffman was interesting as Shylock. "For a movie star, he brought great commitment and energy. He gave it a unique interpretation but was very, very good. It was wonderful to work with such a celebrated actor, and he was always very paternal. He always looked out for us. Without him we wouldn't have had such a successful run in London and especially here. In the process, he brought all of us (the English cast) great exposure."

Siberry gets a good laugh about the thinking that British actors are better than American actors in classical roles, such as those in Shakespeare. "Actors are actors. When it comes to Shakespeare, of course, it's not for everyone, whether British or American. Some actors just click with it. It's all in the rhythms. You either have a sensitivity towards making the language accessible, or you don't. You're easily understood, or you're not." He pauses, then has a good laugh. "American actors tend to overrate English actors!" He points out the excellent performance of American character actor Edmund O'Brien as Casca in the 1953 film of Julius Caesar that starred Marlon Brando as Marc Anthony. "So good! His interpretation was so on the mark because it was so direct."

Siberry had fond memories of his early audience reception, "but, most interestingly, is how the character of Broadway has changed. In the mid-80s, everyone was saying Broadway was dead. I had such vision of it and when I got here, I said, 'Where is it?' There had been this huge British invasion of musicals and plays. New York theater was very, very quiet. Now, it's booming! And very American."

His fondness for New York developed while in Nickelby. "A veteran actor in the company regaled us with stories of how it was when he came to New York during the War (World War II). He spoke of it in such glowing terms, I could see it sparkling. There were a lot of empty theaters. Not now. There are lit marquees everywhere. I hardly recognize Times Square." [END]

Key Subjects: 
Michael Siberry, The Sound Of Music
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
1997