THE SOUND OF MUSIC
By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Following the success of South Pacific, Mary Martin hoped to have a chance to work with Rogers and Hammerstein again one day on Broadway. Upon learning the history of Austria's Trapp Family Singers, she was convinced that here was the source for a new R&H musical, in which she could star as Maria von Trapp.
The convent-bred Maria Agusta Kutschera was originally sent to the home of a retired Austrian naval captain, Baron Georg von Trapp, as governess for his ailing eldest daughter. Maria helped the captain raise his large family after marrying him in 1927. The tenth child was due when, in 1938, desperate to escape the encroaching Nazis, the family made its now-famous journey over the Austrian Alps. Realizing that work as a performing ensemble could ensure their survival, they created the Trapp Family Singers and eventually established themselves internationally. By the 1940s the family was happily settled in Stowe, Vermont, which reminded them of their homeland. Maria, who chronicled her life in a popular autobiography, died in 1987.
Maria's story was told in two German-language films in the mid-1950s. When Broadway producer Vincent J. Donehue saw "Die Trapp Familie," he instantly imagined its appeal to Mary Martin and her producer-husband, Richard Halliday. It was Halliday who gained Maria's encouragement and received the go-ahead from the German company that had made the film. The Sound of Music came into being with Donehue directing, R&H producing with Halliday and Leland Hayward, and Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse contributing the book. The latter pair's hit shows had included Life with Father (1939), which had run on Broadway for seven years. They took considerable liberties in bringing Maria's story to the stage.
In The Sound of Music, Captain von Trapp's seven rambunctious children have gone through many governesses before the arrival of Maria Rainer, a postulant from a nearby abbey. She befriends the children in the course of teaching them to sing. The captain brings home his fiancée, Baroness Elsa Schraeder, whom the children receive coolly. During a party given in Elsa's honor, Maria realizes that she has fallen in love with the captain. She retreats to the abbey, but the Mother Abbess convinces her that the love she feels is holy, too. Maria returns to the children, Elsa and the captain break off their engagement, and he and Maria confess their feelings for each other.
After arriving home from his honeymoon, the captain is ordered to join the Nazi forces. In his absence, impresario Max Detweiler has booked the children to perform in a major music festival. To gain much-needed time, Maria announces to Nazi officials that the captain cannot report for duty yet because the entire Trapp family will be performing. Afterwards they flee to the abbey, with the Nazis in pursuit. Taking the Mother Abbess's prayers with them, the family begins their journey over the mountains to freedom.
Maria's music – by turns lilting (title song), ebullient ("My Favorite Things"), raucous (the yodelled "Lonely Goatherd"), and heartfelt ("An Ordinary Couple," a duet with the captain) – suited Mary Martin's naturally sunny personality. Patricia Neway, a celebrated dramatic soprano, had a deeply moving vehicle in the Abbess's hymn-like "Climb Every Mountain." She also led the nuns' amusing lament that asked "How do you solve a problem like Maria?", and duetted with Maria herself in "My Favorite Things." Theodore Bikel (Captain), both an actor and a folk singer, played guitar for two of his numbers: the Captain-Elsa-Max trio "No Way to Stop It" and "Edelweiss," which became virtually a second Austrian national anthem. The eldest Trapp daughter, Liesl, and her knowing boyfriend, Rolf, had a sweet duet, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." Maria's singing lesson with the children, "Do, Re, Mi," was an instant audience favorite. The children also had their own number, "So Long, Farewell," sung to the party guests.
For the 1965 film, Rodgers wrote "I Have Confidence" for Maria to sing on her way to the Trapp home, and "Something Good" as a replacement for "An Ordinary Couple." Ernest Lehman's screenplay gave new dramatic contexts for "The Lonely Goatherd" and "My Favorite Things." Presumably because Eleanor Parker was not a singer, the show's two songs involving Elsa were dropped. Some critics had found the Broadway version excessively "schmaltzy," a fact of which film director Robert Wise and his star, Julie Andrews were well aware. Although sugary elements remained (movie critic Pauline Kael wrote of "smiles, twinkles, banalities, and falseness"), audiences delighted in Andrews's sparkle and the magnificent Austrian locations. More successful at the box office than any other filmed musical, The Sound of Music has lately acquired a new lease on life thanks to "singalongs," which film audiences attend dressed in ways associated with the show. Onstage it remains popular worldwide, and received a successful Broadway revival in 1998.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal