The Sound of Music was the last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to hit the big screen; it was undoubtedly the biggest, raking in over 100 million at the BO, and was, in my own humble opinion, the best. Hell, it’s probably one the best musicals of all time for that matter. And really, who could argue?
Oh, so I’m not entirely unbiased in my appraisal. The Sound of Music was the second musical I ever acted in (you knew there’d be a story, didn’t you?), playing Kurt in a local community theater way back in 1983. Looking back, I’m amazed at how vast the undertaking was – it required several sets and background scenes (including the Austrian alps), multiple costumes (including the Von Trap playclothes, meant to look like reused drapes); many complex songs, several sung in harmony; loads of dialogue; multiple dance scenes; a large ensemble and an lnger-than-average running time, even for a musical. Of course, I was only Kurt, the younger of the two boys, and so I was oblivious to much of the frantic goings-on that occupied actors of greater stage-time and the creative talents that worked their butts off 24/7 during most of that sweltering summer.
And now, looking at the movie again after all these years, I can now fully appreciate what a mammoth undertaking that must have been. By 1965, Fox had four Rodgers and Hammerstein smashes under their belt; it was certainly a no-brainer to bring the duo’s last collaboration, and Broadway hit, to the big screen. Reams could be written about its long journey from page to Panavision, but suffice to say it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t help matters much that its genre, the epic musical, was a bit passé by the mad-sixties.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about Sound is that fit right in to this new era quite nicely. It was hardly a cinema verite feature, but under the lens of director Robert Wise it looked different from the showstoppers of the 50s. Just as in South Pacific, the movie features actual locales, not soundtages, and acting that feels more “realistic,” as opposed to the booming, hammy-theatrical styles which characterized most Hollywood performances from the 50s and ere. And that ubiquitous score that always seemed to underlie every scene in those old movies was now gone, replaced by – gasp – birds and trees and cars in the background. What a concept!
Yet, ironically, it still received a critical pummeling, most notoriously from Pauline Kael, whose pan famously got her fired from McCall’s magazine. Despite its WWII-eve setting and occasional dark moments, particularly in the third act, it still got characterized as a hopelessly-happy, sappy bit of sentiment – sort of a sequel to the previous year’s Mary Poppins, also starring Julie Andrews. Only time has cured such errors; in the years since its Spring opening, The Sound of Music has been generally acknowledged a bona fide classic. Even those naysayers or anti-musical folk among us have embraced it as a camp classic, with usual high attendances at Sound of Music sing-a-longs and countless references in modern pop culture.
The story begins in Saltsburg, Austria, during “the last golden days of the 30s.” but things aren’t so golden for Maria, a novitiate nun. Her free-spirited, music-loving ways just don’t seem to gel with the abbey’s acetic MO, and she’s called onto the carpet, where the Mother Abbess suggest she take a leave of absence. She goes to become the governess for seven children – the Von Trapps – the widowed father of whom runs the household like the naval captain that he is. It’s not a family that keeps governesses, and Maria learns why: the kids are free-spirits themselves, and resentful of their dad’s mostly absentee authority. The would-be nun is a perfect fit, teaching the children how to climb trees, swim and play, but mostly how to sing, al of it much to the consternation of Captain Von Trapp, in whose eyes merriment is a grim reminder of happier times.
Enter two players – Herr Detweiller, a talent agent and producer who takes immediate notice of the Von Trapp’s recently unlocked talents, and the Baroness Schraeder, a formal, elegant woman from Vienna and the Captain’s love interst. Also in love – Lisel, the eldest daughter, with Rowlf, a messenger – but the Nazi annexation of Austria, the Aunchlauss, is looming, and people are changing. The Captain is keenly aware of the growing threat and adamantly opposes it; Detweiller isn’t necessarily a sympathizer but harbors a que sera attitude. And all the while the Captain and Maria fall in love, but she, wracked with guilt by the feelings, particularly after he announces his engagement to the Baroness, retreats back to the abbey in emotional confusion. After the Mother Abbess proclaims that human love can be just as sacred as divine love, Maria returns to her workplace, embraced by her new family, made official with her marriage to the Captain.
With the Aunchlauss official, all Austrian military officers are enlisted to serve for the Third Reich, and the Captain is no exception. Seeing this as no option whatsoever, but fully aware that refusal would be disastrous for himself and his family, he makes plans for a quiet departure to Switzerland. The zealous Herr Zeller stymies their getaway, forcing the family to perform at a heavily attended folk competition, under watch by Nazi officials. The singing septet actually wins the contest, but has already hightailed it outta there before the award can be bestowed. They take refuge at the abbey, and are nearly caught when now-Nazi Rowlf betrays them, but manage to elude the Germans long enough to exit their homeland afoot, crossing the alps into Switzerland with only backpacks… and the Sound of Music in their hearts.
There’s so much to say about this one. Historically, it could easily be classified as the last great musical, existing, anachronistically, at a time when the form was in its waning days, when New Hollywood was poised to take over and drive out the megabudgets and glossy production values. But if it is indeed the musical’s Lat Hurrah, then what a way to go out. The Sound of Music has so much going for it. It’s full of epic splendor, yes, and a towering score and an “important” setting ad theme, but In the ebd it’s just a very enjoyable film. At nearly three hours, it just seems to float right on by, with very few slow spots or bathroom breaks. Is it because I’m already familiar with the show? I don’t think so; the film’s continued popularity among young people may very well attest to that.
And the reason? I think there are several, not the least of which is the music. Not only is it good, but it’s frequent: I don’t think ten minutes elapse in this film without a song. It seems kike an obvious thing, but you’d be surprised how many musicals ignore this rule, letting full stretches of narrative go on and on without a note of music to break or liven it up. And of course, these are songs that stand the test of time, from the infectious “Do Re Me” to the sprightly “My Favorite Things.” Perhaps my favorite of them all is “Edelweiss”: it’s a charmer when the Captain croons it at home with his guitar but it’s positively tear-inducing when he croaks it out just before their Austrian egress, a symbol not only of his love for homeland but also a rueful farewell to it. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last song, fittingly from their best show.
I was also surprised at how good the romance is too. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (as the Captain) have extraordinary chemistry; their love is not rushed, but evolves quite naturally from initial animosity to mutual respect to finally infatuation. It, of course, follows the classic R&H formula (See South Pacific): a man and a woman, coming from two different worlds, meet and fall and love. But their previous worlds always come back to haunt them, either breaking them up (sad ending) or strengthening their resolve (happy ending). Oh yes, and then there’s a subplot of a younger couple, almost always ill-fated. (Yes, Rowlf and Lisel do part ways, but it’s all for the best, given his ultimate allegiance.) Maria and the Captain’s scene on the terrace, when he finally confesses his love, is a beautiful example of buildup and payoff, but never at the expense of character. He is allowed his firmness, while she keeps her emotional insecurities – they both have their checks and balances which make the whole thing work.
And, as I hinted at earlier, director Robert Wise should not be undervalued – he truly opened up the play and turned it into something cinematically sensational. Knowing how much mileage he could get from the setting, he availed himself of all opportunity to do so, from the now-famous opening show in which we zoom in on a singling Andrews in a mountain-enclosed field, to the “Do RE Me” number, spanning every known Salzburg landmark and no doubt increasing the city’s tourism profit multifold. But of course, he never overdoes it, being mindful to keep musical numbers fully intact (wisely excising the Detweiller/Baroness number “No Way to Stop It”), and never intruding on quiet, personal moments. Like masters like David Lean, Richard Atttenborough and Cecil B DeMille, he knows how to stage a spectacle, while realizing that small human actions are the greatest spectacles of them all.
Just odds and ends now. I love how suspenseful the final abbey scene is – Wise knows how to turn the screws on a mere flashlight beam, inches away from a trembling child. And I was surprised at how I sympathized more with the Baroness, despite her heartless “boarding school” line (that utterance alone makes you root against her). I dunno, maybe I find her more attractive now than I used to. Her portrayer, Eleanor Parker, is quite the looker, even more so than the matronly Julie Andrews, but that’s another story.
‘Nuff said for now. If you haven’t seen it, what in Sam Hill are you waiting for? Head for the Alps, pronto!