The Sweetest Sound
Updated: Nov 23
It's hard to believe that almost two years have passed since I first tried my hand at blogging and made a decision to launch Classics in Wonderland with the support of an enthusiastic group of friends and family. Just as passionate about discovering bygone-era musicals as I was about discussing them, I set out on a personal exploration of the genre that would lead me to share my findings with the casual movie viewer and the ardent fan alike. Despite my original intention of unearthing undiscovered treasures and hidden gems that would be a novelty to most modern audiences, I knew that the more iconic films – the must-see musicals that everyone already knows and loves – would sometimes make their way into my carefully chosen, curated repertoire. Up until now, I've tried to steer away from the tried and true and the familiar, but one title kept making its way to the surface, its story longing to be told alongside some of my fondest memories. A sudden inspiration to draw a legendary performer associated with the film I was considering justified my selection days later. And just like that, I broke my own rule and took a leap of faith in starting a new tradition.
I will always remember my first impression of The Sound of Music. I was 11 years old and had never seen or heard of a movie that had become a home-video staple decades after its 1965 theatrical release. I vaguely knew of a character named Maria, a singing and dancing nun who had a questionable taste in clothes and was always accompanied by her guitar, but I had yet to see her in action. At the time, my sister had borrowed a VHS of the film – a foreign version that was poorly dubbed, unrestored and generally worn out from constant use – from one of her friends. My family and I made a night out of watching the movie together, but our reception was lukewarm. It would take several viewings for me to develop a newfound appreciation for The Sound of Music; as I grew up, the film had somehow redeemed itself in my eyes. I no longer saw it as flawed or inconsistent but as something that was truly spectacular and one-of-a-kind. Now, almost 30 years later, I cannot help but consider it one of the best (if not the best) musicals ever made.
Each time I rewatch The Sound of Music, I find something new to appreciate and admire about it. Some artistic element I hadn't thought of or noticed before catches my eye, and I end up thinking more about the vision that director Robert Wise must have had in mind when he brought this film to life on the big screen, the most obvious and striking aspect being cinematography. Long before the opening credits start rolling, a camera pans across the breathtaking landscape of Austria, capturing bits and pieces of its scenic beauty to the accompaniment of a stunning Rodgers and Hammerstein score – what I call an all-sensory experience at its best – before zooming in on an opening song that is memorable all on its own but only a drop in the vast ocean of an iconic film. As impressive as the film's soundtrack and unforgettable scenery may be, neither can truly stand on its own without the support of a stellar cast that feels as much a part of the audience's family as it does of the von Trapps'.
At the heart of a story that most people know and love is Maria, a free-spirited nun whose love and outright passion for adventure and music is inspiring but highly uncalled-for within the more traditional and disciplined walls of a Salzburg convent. Maria is young, ambitious and eager to please; despite her evident love of God, her decision to dedicate her life to His service is questionable. Criticisms regarding her inability to stop singing everywhere she goes, be punctual when the occasion calls for it or show the general reserve that is required of her are highlighted in one of the earliest musical numbers – simply titled "Maria" – to appear in the movie. And yet, against the nuns' better judgement, Maria's so-called flaws are anything but flawed.
While many actresses have tried to recreate Julie Andrews' iconic performance in The Sound of Music over the years, no one, not even popular country singer Carrie Underwood, who played Maria in 2013's live television production, have managed to surpass it. Decent attempts have been made to recreate the character on-screen or on the stage by focusing on the young nun's virtues of integrity, humility and compassion. And yet, it is Julie, and only Julie, who has added something else to the Maria mix: a sense of authenticity, joy and zest for life that is so infectious, so alluring, that it is impossible to walk away from the film without a renewed sense of optimism and newfound hope.
When Maria is sent away by Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) to care for the seven children of widowed captain Georg von Trapp, played by broodingly handsome Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, she takes a leap of faith and finds inner strength to take a leap into the unknown in the "I Have Confidence" sequence. Julie was only 30 when she starred in The Sound of Music but already had the makings of what one would call a class act – an admirable quality that is rarely found in most celebrities (especially these days!).
Maria's willingness to adapt to new surroundings and make the most out of any circumstance always remains at the forefront of her experience with and influence on the von Trapps. Despite a cold and distant introduction made by the captain, who runs his household with a firm and steady hand, and his children, who have driven away all governesses hired to care for them since their mother's passing, Maria manages to stand her ground. In keeping with the film's theme, she uses music as a means of raising Liesl, Louisa, Friedrich, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta and Gretl and exposing them to the ever-changing world around them.
In "My Favorite Things," a popular tune that has since become a holiday staple, Maria offers the children her loving and protective care, a luxury that has long been denied to them. She also manages to change the mind of the oldest von Trapp sibling, Liesl, into thinking she is too old for a governess when the headstrong teenager returns from a late-night rendezvous with suitor Rolf ("Sixteen Going on Seventeen"). Maria's biggest accomplishment of all, however, is the defining moment when she teaches the children to sing – a skill that not only changes the course of their lives on-screen – but ultimately defines the trajectory of Maria's own future with the family.
"Do-Re-Mi" is a song that needs no introduction. Its upbeat lyrics and catchy tune are easy to remember and hard to forget, but even they pale in comparison to the sights and sounds of a Salzburg that would never be the same following its inadvertent induction into Hollywood history.
In 2016, my friend and I traveled to Austria for vacation, adding Salzburg to our itinerary as a must-see destination. While there, we managed to book a bus tour that took us to several noteworthy film locations. During the trip, we learned that the picturesque city was initially unprepared to handle the influx of tourism that came about as a direct result of the film's release. But the demand was strong, and over the years, the city made the necessary accommodations to extend themed excursions and offerings to international visitors.
Some of the key attractions showcased during our tour included the gazebo where Liesl danced with Rolf, Mirabell Gardens in the finale of "Do-Re-Mi" and St. Michael Mondsee, the church where Maria gets married. I was especially excited to learn that two different locations were selected for the exterior shots of the von Trapps' home. The first building, Schloss Leopoldskron, was filmed during scenes on the lake and in the garden terrace; the second building, Frohnburg Palace, which I did not get to see up close but admired from afar, was utilized for its front facade.
There are many themes in The Sound of Music, the obvious ones being family, music and hope, but the most important one, depicted in various facets, is love. There is the unconditional feeling of it, however questionable it may seem at times, between the von Trapps. There is also the proud-filled, dedicated type of love that individuals like the captain feel for their country, exemplified during Georg's moving rendition of "Edelweiss" via professionally dubbed and Christopher Plummer-penned versions. Last but not least is romance, which is depicted in stark contrast during interactions between Georg and his fiancé, the alluring Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker), and down-to-earth Maria.
Even as Maria is an open book – genuine, warm and approachable – the baroness is shrouded in mystery. At times, she seems to care about the von Trapps, showing genuine delight when young Gretl approaches her with a gift and truly enjoying herself as the family gathers for rousing renditions of "The Lonely Goatherd" and "So Long, Farewell." At other times, the baroness is cold and calculating, unafraid to express her desire to send the children to boarding school and discreetly get rid of the woman whom she begins to view as her competition. Maria's decision to leave the Captain von Trapp's employ and return to Nonnberg Abbey as a direct result of the baroness' actions makes her absence all the more profound, and for a fraction of time in the film, the pill of the baroness' impending nuptials to Georg is a difficult one to swallow.
Whether by coincidence or with the help of divine intervention – possibly delivered in the form of advice by Mother Abbess during "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" – love conquers all. "Something Good," a key turning point in Georg and Maria's romantic relationship, is a stunning sequence that makes for a strong contender as one of the best love scenes ever shot on film. By comparison, a less obvious choice for such a recognition is a significant exchange that takes place prior to Maria's untimely departure. For it is here that Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer truly shine, both individually and as a couple. Such a remarkable and subtle interaction, delivered with very little dialog but with all the right intentions, deserves noteworthy mention as one of The Sound of Music's greatest moments.
Interestingly enough, the relationship of Maria Augusta Kutschera and Georg Ludwig Ritter von Trapp did not have the makings of a fairy tale that Robert Wise had in mind when he brought The Sound of Music to life on the big screen. Contrary to the intimidating and larger-than-life presence of Christopher Plummer's character depiction, the actual naval captain was a soft-spoken, warm and caring father, providing moral support and allowing Maria, a strong-willed disciplinarian and leader, to run the show. When the young nun, aged 22, agreed to marry 47-year-old Georg, she cared deeply for his children (Agathe, Rupert, Maria, Werner, Johanna, Martina and Hedwig), but although she was certainly fond of her soon-to-be-husband, Maria did not feel like she loved him when the couple decided to tie the knot.
When my family and I first watched The Sound of Music all those years ago, we had found that the majority of the film was highly optimistic and abundantly upbeat; as a result, the darker overtones of the overarching narrative, which focuses on Germany's takeover of Austria in the late 1930s, felt out of place to us. Back then, we knew nothing about the von Trapps; as a result, the drastic change from a captivating world filled with joyful music to the heavy-hearted depiction of a bygone Austria under Nazi occupation seemed incohesive. What we didn't realize is that Hollywood's on-screen adaptation had taken a few creative liberties with The Sound of Music story. As a result, the actual experience of the Austrian family that left behind its home country to find a new beginning in America was quite different from the dramatized version movie audiences have come to accept.
Following the captain's refusal to accept a commission in the Germany Navy, the on-screen von Trapps make an impromptu appearance at the Salzburg Festival while a pre-arranged getaway vehicle waits in the wings to help them escape. Twists and turns lurk at every corner as Maria and Georg hide out in the abbey, calling upon the nuns' support and in constant danger of being caught, and plan their next move in getting the children to safety. Once out of harm's way, the family travels by foot over a mountain range and crosses a border into Switzerland.
In real life, the von Trapps were already a singing group and under contract to an American booking agent by the time World War II broke out. Taking a train into Italy, followed by a stop in England, the performers made the necessary arrangements to sail to the United States for a series of concert appearances. By 1939, the von Trapps managed to finish a Scandinavian tour and return to the United States – settling into their new home in Vermont and welcoming additional members to their growing family.
Historical inaccuracies such as the ones depicted in the film are not always palatable, but they can be overlooked when compared to the overall source material. No harm done, so to speak, and the end result is still spectacular. In the case of a stage show I caught last year, however, acceptance is sometimes impossible.
When I purchased tickets to The Sound of Music at my local theater, I was in for quite a rude awakening. As I sat down to review a copy of the printed program that was handed to me by an usher, I noticed two words that completely threw me off guard: modern interpretation. Without having seen the show, my intuition told me that a beloved classic was about to suffer a cruel fate. My suspicion proved to be correct as I took a closer look at the stage and noticed an enormous tree in the background. Little did I know that said tree would serve many a purpose throughout the evening, standing in for Maria's beloved hill, the von Trapps' staircase and an escape route used by various characters whenever the occasion called for it. This suspicious prop, taking up a significant amount of space, made it difficult for performers to freely move about. As a result, several rows of seats were removed to make room for a riser with dining tables, and the orchestra – having been displaced – was relocated to the stage.
As I was completely thrown for a loop when some of the actors sat down on the staged chairs and picked up instruments to play along with the orchestra, I braced myself for what was to come next. By then, I had realized that the central characters, who were still part of 1930's Austria, were dressed in modern-day garb. Some fared better than others, suits and evening gowns spoken like a timeless language, but young Rolf did not seem to know what hit him. Donning sneakers, a digital watch and a baseball cap, Liesl's late-night caller was no longer a mail carrier but a pizza delivery man. The Nazis had also traded in their military uniforms for overalls, plaid shirts and beards later on in the show, their weapons gleaming in the spotlight as they made their presence known to an unsuspecting von Trapp family and, most importantly, myself. By the end of the night, I had sworn off all live productions of The Sound of Music and decided to stick to the fonder memory of watching a worn-out VHS tape in the 1990s. And with this final recollection is where my journey comes full circle.
It's hard to believe that a wholesome film like The Sound of Music belongs to a decade when old-fashioned morals were being relegated to the past and tastes in musicals were changing. What's even harder to imagine is that a film that is essentially pure at heart and equally as heartwarming continues, for the most part, to inspire and delight audiences of all ages to this day. Alongside media content that is oversexualized, violent and agenda-ridden, the 1965 cinematic masterpiece feels like an especially refreshing breath of air – uncorrupted, unpretentious and uncompressing in its values. Critics and audiences have called it saccharine and naive, but in that is where the magic seems to lie. For even in the most innocent of moments, the precious scenes at which some viewers may roll their eyes or even scoff are the ones that serve as a reminder that there is still some good left in the world. And an escape, no matter where it will lead or how fantastical it may be, Switzerland included, still ends up being the sweetest sound of all.