When we look back at the 1960s, the phenomenon that was—and still somewhat is—The Sound of Music seems like an anomaly. But at the time it was more like the solid rock of reassuring constancy that masses clung to as waters of bewildering change rose all around them, a three-hour oasis of clean living and cheerful melody that wouldn't go away—no matter how many antiwar protesting, unisex haircutting and psychedelic hippiedom swirled around it.
Today it's kitsch, as it was, to some at least back then; when Pauline Kael wrote a scathing pan for women's magazine McCall's, reader outrage got her fired (a lucky break, perhaps, since that led to her career-making New Yorker gig). But it's kitsch that a whole lot of people still love, with or without an ironic wink. How many patrons at the Castro Theatre, where The Sing-A-Long Sound of Music is playing once again through December 5, will arrive in nun drag? With children or grandchildren? On a date? No doubt the crowd will be more diverse—and raucous—than could be imagined in 1965. But once the music starts, they will be as one. There are few things more leveling than 1,600 people singing “Lusty and clear from the goatherd's throat heard/Lay-e-odl-lay-ee-odl-oo.” Fight that, enemies of freedom!
The Sound of Music has come a long way to its current survival status as a live interactive event. It was, for many years, the highest-grossing movie ever made (by far). With earnings adjusted for inflation, it's still number three, just behind Star Wars and Gone with the Wind. It saved one major Hollywood studio from bankruptcy; subsequent attempts to replicate its success nearly sank several others. It made Julie Andrews the biggest movie star in the world. By 1972—the same year The Godfather would briefly steal its box-office supremacy—she was reduced to hosting a TV variety show (which flopped). Yet through these and all other unforeseen shifts in fortune, The Sound of Music kept being re-released to theaters, annually telecast, its soundtrack never going out of print.
Like most cultural cornerstones, it seldom looked like it was going to become one before that simply “happened." You might say the whole shebang owes its existence to an Austrian nobleman's financial ineptitude. In the mid-1930s retired naval officer and WWI hero Baron Georg Ludvig Ritter von Trapp lost most of his wealth—inherited from a first wife who'd died of scarlet fever—when the Salzberg bank he'd transferred it to failed. Over his initial objections that it was undignified, his second wife (whom he'd met when she was a Benedictine nun-in-training hired to tutor one of his children) proposed they turn the family hobby into a professional touring entity, singing traditional folk songs in traditional folk dress.
The success, and mythologizing, began early: In a 1938 Time magazine article coinciding with the act's triumphant U.S. debut, it was already being claimed that all the children were born to mother Maria. (In fact the first seven out of ten were born to her late predecessor.) Two years after Georg's death, she published The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, a somewhat revisionist autobiography that inspired a hit West German big-screen drama and its sequel in the late 1950s. They in turn attracted interest from Rogers & Hammerstein, undisputed kings of Broadway since Oklahoma!, who tweaked the real-life story yet further in creating their 1959 stage musical. Few critics considered it up to the standard of prior R&H triumphs like South Pacific, Carousel or The King & I, but it was a long-running commercial smash in New York City, London and elsewhere.
Six years later 20th Century Fox was teetering from the then-unprecedented expenses of costume epic Cleopatra, whose cost overruns threatened to topple the entire studio. Needing a surefire hit—even though screen musicals were already going out of fashion—they turned to The Sound of Music, trying to enlist director Robert Wise, who'd had an Oscar-winning triumph adapting *West Side Story*. But he (like many critics) found the material “too saccharine,” so after several other leading talents turned it down, 20th Century Fox signed the equally laureled (Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday) William Wyler. He did a great deal of pre-production work, including choosing European locations and hiring as star Julie Andrews, a young theatrical favorite as yet unproven as a movie star. (Her first film, Mary Poppins, had not yet been released.) Yet when Wyler was offered an edgier project in the form of John Fowles' disturbing novel The Collector, he bolted. Because production had been delayed on his Steve McQueen naval epic The Sand Pebbles, Wise was now happy to step into The Sound of Music after all.
It was, by all accounts, a fairly pleasant shoot, especially for the seven largely inexperienced kids and teens drafted to play the Trapp children. (Thirteen-year-old Angela Cartwright, however, was already a familiar face as Penny on TV's cult perennial Lost in Space.) Still, hopes were just cautiously optimistic. The year 1965 saw the release of Repulsion, Darling, Wyler's Collector, the Beatles' Help!, Juliet of the Spirits, For a Few Dollars More, and other envelope-pushing movies. Even Doctor Zhivago had more sex appeal—would ultra-wholesome The Sound of Music seem hopelessly old-fashioned?
Yes, to some, but it turned out their disdain didn't matter. Released in the long-extinct “roadshow” fashion—complete with orchestral overture and intermission, first shown in 70mm prints at top ticket prices in major urban centers' showcase movie palaces only, then gradually fanning out to suburban and small town venues—The Sound of Music was a sensation that caught fire almost everywhere. Dialogue and singing dubbed into six languages, it also saw translation into such titles as Tears and Smiles (Iran), The Rebel Novice (Brazil), All Together with Passion (Italy), Truth, Kindness and Beauty (Taiwan) and Angelic Music Flies and Is Heard Everywhere (Hong Kong). One place it was not popular, however, was Germany. There, distributors enraged Fox by initially cutting the entire final third following Maria and the Baron's wedding—ergo bypassing all that unpleasant “bad Nazis” stuff.
When Oscar time came around, the film won five, including Best Picture and Director. Not Best Actress (that went to Julie Christie for Darling), but then Andrews had won the prior year as Ms. Poppins, a nod widely viewed as a slap to Hollywood's choice of a vocally dubbed Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a role that had been Julie's stage triumph.
Hollywood was at a crisis point then. The “factory” studio system that had worked like a charm for decades was decaying and increasingly irrelevant in the context of great societal, artistic and audience shifts. Clearly the industry's future would look very different—but how? In a way, then, The Sound of Music was a disaster, because its enormous success gave studios the false impression that they could survive by clinging to the past. The next five years saw Hollywood cranking out a slew of elephantine Broadway musical adaptations—Hello Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, a reunited Wise and Andrews' dud Star!—that lacked the magic of The Sound of Music, seemed hopelessly out of synch with the times and either bombed outright or were too expensive to turn a profit despite good business.
By the dawn of the 1970s, the screen musical had basically killed itself. Rare successes (Cabaret, Tommy, Grease) were much more adult or rock-oriented. Even today, when the genre seems to have made a partial comeback, it must make songs into dream sequences, internal monologues or onstage performances so audiences won't be discomfited by the supposed silliness of people simply bursting into melody. This at a time when most blockbusters are comic-book fantasies—we can accept that reality, yet musicals demand too great a suspension of disbelief? Yeah, whatever.
Speaking of disbelief, re: the enduring popularity of The Sound of Music—just weeks ago no less a cultural arbiter than Oprah re-assembled the movie's leading cast for a 45th anniversary “celebration” that just happened to coincide with release of the movie's latest fancy home-entertainment repackaging—here are a few fun facts you might keep in mind while following the sing-a-long subtitles at the Castro this week. Or not:
No dewy-eyed novice anymore, Maria Kutschera had been married to Baron von Trapp for a decade and had had two of her own children with him by the time they allegedly meet in the movie. One among many details she glossed over in various tellings of the family saga is that records indicate she gave birth to their first child just three months after marriage. You can take the girl out of the convent, but...er, well, never mind.
The Trapps didn't “flee” the Nazis in secret, or really at all, though they did oppose them. Officially an Italian citizen, the Baron was in no immediate danger of military call-up, and the family simply boarded a train to leave the country in 1938, just before Germany had annexed Austria as part of the Third Reich.
“Edelweiss” is not a traditional Austrian song, but Rogers & Hammerstein's original idea of one. Nonetheless, in certain Austrian tourists spots these days you may find it hard to escape.
While Julie Andrews (and Mary Martin on Broadway) was everyone's idea of the perfect playmate-mom, the real Maria was apparently no soft touch as either mother or business manager. She strongly opposed the children leaving the act to start their own marriages, families and careers. When that exodus could no longer be halted, she hired professional singers to pose as little “Von Trapps.”
The group disbanded in 1957—though not before making several recordings, including a guest appearance on an Elvis Christmas disc. Today four of Maria's great-grandchildren tour and record as JAMS (for Justin, Amanda, Melanie and Sofia), singing everything from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to Strauss and the inevitable Sound of Music songs.
The Trapps moved to the U.S. in 1940, and they still operate the 2400-acre family resort they established in rural Vermont.
Purportedly 60-year-old Maria was so enraptured by the movie—particularly her own flattering portrait—that at one premiere she majestically rose from her seat and walked bride-like down the theatre aisle during its grandiose wedding sequence.
The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox, yet the musicals it produced in an attempt to repeat that success lost so much money the studio ledgers didn't edge into the black again until 1973—thanks to the re-release of The Sound of Music that same year.
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