Merry Christmas: In Defense of “The Sound of Music”

25 Dec

When I was a child, my first exposure to the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “The Sound of Music,” was the original Broadway cast album featuring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel in the lead roles of Maria Rainer and Captain Von Trapp. I later read the play. I didn’t see the 1965 movie version with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer until I was in high school, some four years after it had originally been released. I was somewhat skeptical at the time. Maybe I just happened to be in a demographic that deemed it unfashionable. Years later, in the early ’90s, I’m guessing, I saw a double bill of THE SOUND OF MUSIC with an earlier, similarly-themed Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, THE KING AND I (1956), at the Cinema Village in Manhattan. What struck me then was how claustrophobic the more stagebound KING AND I was, while THE SOUND OF MUSIC was “opened up” to allow panoramic Austrian landscapes into the story. Until this month, I hadn’t seen it, or any other version of the musical, since.

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On December 5, 2013, NBC ran a historic live production of “The Sound of Music,” based on the original Broadway musical, on broadcast television for a nationwide live audience of 18.5 million, with millions more on DVR. I tuned in about an hour midway and was somewhat turned off by what I perceived as amateurish performances and watched only a few scenes before I tuned out, learning only later that the very next scene after the commercial break which caused me to change channels featured Audra McDonald singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” something I would like to have seen (and heard). Conversation with a few friends about this production afterwards prompted me to wish I’d stuck with it and given it another chance.  (Coincidentally, when I turned away from “Sound of Music” that night, I came upon THE DEFIANT ONES on TCM only to find Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis being faced down by none other than the original Captain Von Trapp, Theodore Bikel!)

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When NBC decided to re-broadcast “The Sound of Music” on December 14, I made sure to watch it in its entirety as it was shown. I was quite impressed this time. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, we have memories of other, better performers in the lead roles. Yes, Carrie Underwood’s Maria generally behaved more like a camp counselor than a governess. Yes, the romantic chemistry could have been stronger. But both lead performers were sincere and struck me as emotionally invested in what they were doing. I believed Stephen Moyer’s Captain von Trapp. He’s a better actor than Carrie Underwood. She’s a better singer than he is, but I thought that, together, they conveyed what needed to be conveyed about their characters, each of whom has to make life-changing decisions in the course of the film. Hers requires the least acting, being that it  boils down to the choice of love over the church and it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the two leads have to get together by the end. The stronger dilemma involves the Captain’s being torn between his loyalty to Austria and the demands of the new Nazi regime. How could he protect his family if he were to openly defy the Nazis? How can he live with himself if he chooses to go along? Moyer’s acting makes his character’s internal discomfort quite palpable and dramatizes the global conflict of that era in starkly human terms.

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Both leads can, at least, sing well, and sell the songs to the audience. And they’re surrounded by experienced Broadway performers, most notably Audra McDonald, as the Mother Abbess, and Laura Benanti as Frau Schrader (the Baroness in the movie version). And it really helped. In every scene between McDonald and Underwood, I felt the pull of an experienced performer tutoring and welcoming in a dedicated, if less experienced one.

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Most importantly, watching this production allowed me to reconnect with the material as I was first exposed to it—as a theater production. I’d forgotten how much those songs (and other show tunes from that era) were a part of my cultural DNA. I thought the production, as viewed on HDTV, captured in these digital shots taken as it aired, looked just fine. Who needs to “open it up”? These scenes play out just splendidly in the rooms they’re set in. The most spectacular number was, of course, the wedding of Maria and the Captain, and it’s always been, for me, the emotional highlight of the show, especially in the way the music is orchestrated and the way “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” is integrated into the Wedding March. I loved how it was done here.

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Overall, I felt this was quite a gift to the viewing audience of America. How often do millions of people get to see live theater productions on-air? Would Middle America have watched it if someone without Carrie Underwood’s name recognition had starred in it? I thought back to the live shows I saw on TV as a child—“Peter Pan,” with Mary Martin, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” with Lesley Ann Warren. (I was too young to have seen the Julie Andrews version.) As it turned out, “The Sound of Music” was a huge ratings hit and spurred NBC to consider the production of more live musicals for TV. This can only be a good thing. I talked about this with a skeptical co-worker who’d deemed this production “unwatchable” because of Underwood’s performance. I asked her what she thought would have been a better choice and she suggested that Underwood would have done better as the star of “Annie Get Your Gun.” I found this to be a good idea and I hope NBC would consider it. My only exposure to that show is the movie version with Betty Hutton, which I found problematic, to say the least, thanks largely to Hutton’s overly broad performance.

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On December 22, ABC broadcast THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), so I got to reconnect with the film version a week after seeing the TV production. I watched it in HD. It’s a 174-minute film that was placed into a four-hour time slot, which means 66 minutes of commercials. The TV production was shown complete in a three-hour time slot. So we’ve already got a problem of length and pacing. Since I don’t have the film on tape or DVD, I couldn’t watch it uninterrupted. So it inevitably dragged in places. A friend insists that I can’t reevaluate it based on such a hampered viewing and that I must see it on the big screen, but this was the only way I could watch it so closely after the TV production and I’m not entirely sure I want to see it again any time soon. Maybe in a couple of years if the opportunity arises.

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Watching it this time, under the influence of the TV production, I began to question the whole concept of “opening up” the play. I’m sorry, but “Do Rei Mi” works best in a room. The point of the song is to show the kids learning the basics of notes and melody for the first time. Focus on the song. The use of sweeping Austrian vistas in the background and cutting between different locations and switching their costumes was just too distracting. I also found some of the scenes of the kids cavorting and frolicking along the Austrian countryside way too saccharine.

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Given that this is a musical, which is a much more intimate art form than a big-screen on-location epic, I think I would have preferred something more stagebound. Even the best movie musicals that used location filming kept it to a minimum, e.g. ON THE TOWN (1949) and WEST SIDE STORY (1961), which limited their location shooting in New York to their opening numbers and did the rest in the studio. (Robert Wise directed both WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and there are similarities in the way both films are “opened up.”) Scenes where people break into spontaneous song are by their nature unrealistic and hence, better suited for the studio, where a sense of artifice can be maintained. When Tony warbles “Maria” in the movie version of WEST SIDE STORY as he walks through the streets of the West Side of Manhattan at night, a series of blatantly unreal painted urban backgrounds flows behind him. Would audiences have accepted it if it had been shot on location? Doubtful. (Granted, by the time the film was playing to hardened South Bronx audiences in the late 1960s during its many reissues, all of which I faithfully attended, such numbers were soliciting laughs rather than romantic sighs.) I’ve never seen OKLAHOMA (1955), so I can’t assess the impact of location shooting on that one. (I have seen the 1958 film version of SOUTH PACIFIC, which was shot on location and the less said about it the better. If there’s any argument to be made for keeping musicals in the studio, it’s that film.)

Also, for all the talk about how Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer had better romantic chemistry than the two leads in the TV production, I have to confess I did not believe him when he declared his love for Maria. I believed him when he snarled, but it seemed forced when he smiled, as if his inner Grinch was succumbing to the demands of the script. Maybe I’m just too used to him as a villain rather than a romantic lead. Although, I will say that his rendition of “Edelweiss” is quite effective. And Eleanor Parker is very good as the sly, perceptive, manipulative Baroness who’s initially engaged to the Captain until they both realize he’s in love with Maria. Here, unlike in the play, the Baroness is the one who encourages Maria to pack up and leave once she realizes she’s in love with the Captain. On a coincidental note, Parker died on December 9 at the age of 91, four days after the live telecast of the TV production. (December 9th was also the 97th birthday of Parker’s DETECTIVE STORY co-star, Kirk Douglas.)

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I took this opportunity to also acquaint myself with the Japanese animated series, “The Trapp Family Story” (Trapp Ikka Monogatari), a 40-episode series shown in Japan in 1991 as part of the ongoing World Masterpiece Theater series, in which classic books from around the world were adapted for animation. The six episodes I’ve seen, all in Japanese with English subtitles, focus on Maria entering the abbey, getting the assignment to work for the Trapp family (where she arrives at the beginning of the third episode) and acclimating herself to life there, while putting up with hostility from the children (who gradually, one by one, begin to warm up to her) and from the housekeeper, Baroness Mathilda and her loyal servants, while the less loyal ones take a shine to the spirited new employee.

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Her job is as tutor not governess, and she’s responsible for only one child, the bedridden member of the family, eight-year-old Maria, which, I understand, is what the real Maria’s initial job was when she joined the Trapp family. The children’s names here are all different from the names in the play/movie versions, because the anime series uses the children’s real names. (One of the girls’ names is Hedwig, which might not have been considered Broadway- or Hollywood-friendly in the late 1950s.) And Maria is given her real last name, Kutschera. Her character strikes me as much too forward and aggressive way too early in her tenure to be believable. So far, there is one song early on, which sounds like a European folk song translated into Japanese, which Maria sings to her classroom in the second episode. The series has been seen, dubbed, in numerous foreign languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Tagalog, but not, alas, in English.

Maria’s outfit, which she wears when journeying to the Trapps, seems modeled after the one Maria wore in the movie version.

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I’m not sure how closely this series is based on the Trapp book or if the episodes are entirely invented for the series. If I can get through the whole series and research the family history some more, maybe I’ll write about it here.

The Real Story of the Von Trapp Family

Interestingly, Hedwig von Trapp became a singing teacher in Hawaii and one of her students, Elizabeth Wagner, teamed up with another girl, Christine Rolseth, to form a duo, Betsy & Chris, who went to Japan and had a singing career there from 1969 to 1972.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Betsy and Chris, Elizabeth Wagner (born October 1, 1952) and Christine Rolseth (born July 5, 1952), were a folk music duo from Hawaii and Idaho respectively who sang in the Japanese language, and had a string of hits in Japan from 1969 to 1972. They originally came to Japan as members of The Sound of Young Hawaii in 1969.

Hedwig von Trapp was Elizabeth Wagner’s singing teacher.

One of their songs, “White is the Color of Lovers” (Shiroi Iro wa Koibito no Iro), written and recorded in Japanese, was later covered by two of my J-pop favorites, Nozomi Tsuji and Ai Kago, performing as the pop duo, W. (I’ve done this song, in Japanese, in karaoke.) When Ai Kago came to New York on separate occasions in 2009 and 2010, I had the opportunity to meet her and tell her how great she is and also to see her perform. So it all comes full circle.

Here are the two versions of that song:

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2 Responses to “Merry Christmas: In Defense of “The Sound of Music””

  1. Griff December 28, 2013 at 9:29 PM #

    “…I will say that his (Christopher Plummer’s) rendition of ‘Edelweiss’ is quite effective.”

    I agree that the scene in which Capt. Von Trapp performs “Edelweiss” is terribly effective, and well acted by Plummer. However, Plummer did not do his own singing in the picture; singer Bill Lee performed all of the Captain’s songs.

    For me, the most affecting moment in the movie is when the gruff, cold Captain suddenly hears his children singing, perhaps for the first time since the death of his wife. Plummer plays this scene beautifully — it’s very sensitively and simply staged by Wise. We witness the character’s heart come back to life; the Captain is again able to express his long-buried love for his family. It is, of course, a sentimental show, but this scene has always felt very moving and real to me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Oscars 2015: Shorten the Speeches, Amp Up the Stars | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - February 27, 2015

    […] Andrews and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which was released 50 years ago this March. (I wrote about it here.) It would have been nice if MacLaine’s appearance had been preceded by film clips, to remind the […]

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