Rodgers & Hammerstein scared Peter Kiesewalter.
It wasn't the prospect of performing the classical musical duo's work that frightened him. It was the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.
Kiesewalter, a musician and producer, had an established record of creating new, modern interpretations of classics, particularly with his East Village Opera Company, which has performed in Central Kentucky. He also had a reputation for putting on an annual holiday show in New York.
"I associate The Sound of Music with the holidays because I always see it over the holidays," Kiesewalter says. "I thought, instead of playing a normal collection of holiday songs, why don't we play all the songs from that movie? I intended it as a one-off, and I didn't even know I needed Rodgers & Hammerstein's permission. But a couple hours after the club listed it on their Web site, I got a cease-and-desist letter from Rodgers & Hammerstein, which was the beginning of this whole adventure."
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That adventure resulted in The Hills Are Alive, an album of The Sound of Music's songs, stylistically reinterpreted by Kiesewalter's Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata. The orchestra is bringing a live performance of that album to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts on Friday. (The group was scheduled to play The Kentucky Center in Louisville on Thursday night.)
Clearly, something happened after "cease and desist."
Kiesewalter says it was an honest mistake. Most music he has performed has been public domain or rock and pop music, which is usually covered by a venue's contract with organizations such as BMI or ASCAP that allow for groups to come in and play copyrighted songs by another artist.
"I could put a band together and play Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety live somewhere and not need Pink Floyd's permission," Kiesewalter says. "But The Sound of Music is a theatrical work, and different copyright rules apply. Credit to Rodgers & Hammerstein — they have eyes and ears all over the world, and they know what's going on."
Kiesewalter's initial reaction was to scrap the show. He was certain he would never be allowed to tinker with music from the classic 1965 film. But his attorney set up a meeting with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.
"He said, 'Go, introduce yourself and tell them what you're doing,'" Kiesewalter says. "And based on that meeting, I was given what I am told is a very rare permission to mess with what is the crown jewel of their empire, The Sound of Music."
And mess with it Kiesewalter did — respectfully, he says.
"I honestly love the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, he said. "And I think that comes across in that it's not a parody or played in any ironic way."
For instance, when he looked into the lyrics of Climb Ev'ry Mountain, he saw the makings of classic R&B-gospel song. The Lonely Goatherd received a 1970s arena-rock treatment to emphasize the theme of loneliness.
"It was usually more about the lyric than the music," Kiesewalter says.
He says that in his past projects, such as with East Village Opera, he has encountered purists who don't want him to tinker with the music, and when he took on The Sound of Music, he found that there "are as many people who are as protective of the original versions as there are in the opera world. I think anyone who is into anything passionately will be suspect of different versions and interpretations."
But the Rodgers & Hammerstein group saw value in what he was doing.
"I think for an art form to survive, it needs to be turned upside down every once in a while and looked at from a fresh perspective," he says.
Kiesewalter's background is varied. He studied classical music, and he played pop and rock in New York, and that gave him the chops to navigate between the two worlds.
"They were fully behind it, and publicly so," Kiesewalter says of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. "There were three representatives there, and they got it right away. They saw that it wasn't a parody or a rock band taking the piss out of a classic Broadway musical. They saw and recognized that this might be a way to make the music relevant to a generation that might not get introduced to The Sound of Music."