Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Sound of Music

The production schedule for Goodfollies has been moved up and I am due in Europe for location shooting this next week. Most of the work will be done in the studio but they want an authentic flair for some of the fantastic musical dream sequences as my character works through her psychotherapeutic issues. We film in London, Barcelona, Florence and Rome. I'm especially looking forward to the rousing tap number down the central aisle at St. Peter's - I just hope my legs are up for it following my recent injury. Thirty three of my Louis Vuitton traveling bags have been packed and are waiting for the airport limo. It should be thirty seven, but four have gone missing. I presume they're traveling with Doreen and her paramour, Reynaldo, my ex-gardener.

In order to get a feel for European musical location shooting, I purchased a copy of the DVD release of Robert Wise's 1965 film version of The Sound of Music. I have very fond memories of the film. I was on the short list for the part of Maria based on my brilliant stage performance of the role in the Winnipeg company. Our director took an innovative approach to the material, inserting a second act Anschluss dream ballet. I still have the review from the local paper, despite its typo, "Nancys Invade Austria At Capitol Theater". When Julie was cast, I was given a consolation prize, the role of the Lonely Goatherd. There was to be a magnificent tap number but it was rewritten at the last minute for a bunch of puppets to keep down the SAG costs.

Anyway, for those few who have not seen this enchanting, if schmaltzy, musical entertainment, The Sound of Music is the story of a real person, Maria Von Trapp, and is based on actual events from her life. As the film opens, catching Maria (Julie Andrews) doing her famous spin in a breathtaking Alpine meadow, we learn that Maria is a postulant in a Salzburg convent, seeking to join an order of cloistered Benedictine nuns. The other nuns recognize that Maria is too full of joie de vivre to ever truly take to the contemplative life. The mother abbess (Peggy Wood) sends Maria forth from the convent to be temporary governess in the household of Baron Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a retired naval hero and widower who has seven children between the ages of five and sixteen. After a bit of a rocky start, Maria wins the hearts of the children, and eventually, the captain, much to the consternation of his snooty fiancée, the Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Eleanor Parker).

Maria is musically inclined and wins the children's trust, and eventually brings about family healing through the use of music, turning the kids into a sort of Mittel European Osmond family. Family friend Max Detwiler (Richard Haydn) hears them sing and is determined to make them famous. Will the Captain choose the simple Maria over the glamorous, but shallow, Baroness? Will the family become famous stage performers? When the Nazis take over Austria in the Anschluss and try to press the Captain into service in the German navy?  Will he succumb or choose freedom instead? Come on people, this is romantic musical comedy.

The true story of the Von Trapps, as detailed in a series of memoirs by Baroness Maria Von Trapp some years later, is fascinating and well worth reading. The basic outlines of the story are true, but a certain amount of dramatic license was taken in various adaptations. These began with a non-musical film version Die Trapp Familie made in Germany in1956. It was quite successful and spawned a sequel Die Trapp Familie in Amerika two years later. These films were brought to Mary Martin with the idea of fashioning a stage musical for her. She agreed and, after an initial concept of using the songs the Trapps actually sang on stage was discarded, Rodgers and Hammerstein were engaged to write what would become their final score together.

When it came time to adapt the property for film, screenwriter Ernest Lehmann made a number of changes. He eliminated the political elements of Captain Georg and Elsa's relationship (on stage, the relationship ends as she's a Nazi sympathizer, not because of Georg's love for Maria) and with it, her songs. Several other numbers were reordered or placed differently in the score and a couple of new ones were ordered up from Rodgers (Hammerstein having died from cancer in the interim). Lehmann's changes allowed the focus of the show to change from the adult relationships to the relationships between both Maria and the Captain and the children, bolstering the family elements of the piece.

The real courtship of Maria and Georg Von Trapp actually happened in 1927. Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, in order to heighten dramatic tension, moved it to coincide with the Anschluss. They also conveniently omitted certain facts like the social ostracism that accompanied the family when the captain, a wealthy aristocrat, married the help. The Trapp family money came from the Captain's first wife, Agatha Whitehead, daughter of the family that invented and held the patents on the torpedo. The family survived the crash and the depression in luxury and did well until 1935. At that time, the Captain moved his assets from Lloyds of London to an Austrian bank to show his commitment to the Austrian economy. The new bank failed taking most of the money with it. The family were reduced to renting rooms in the villa. One of the rooms was taken by a priest, Father Wasner, who taught at a local seminary. Father Wasner was a skilled musician. He heard the family singing together (something the real Maria loved) at chapel services and realized there was talent. He gave the children, now young adults, the musical training and arrangements that allowed them to become first, the Trapp Family Choir, later changed to the Trapp Family Singers to make them more accessible. The original seven children were eventually joined by three more, born to Maria and Georg. The Trapp Family Singers became a concert draw in Europe in the late 30s and did indeed win the Salzburg folk festival. After the Anschluss, Captain Georg was invited to take a commission in the German Navy which he refused on several occasions. The family was also invited to sing for Hitler's birthday as a representative of the Austrian people. This they also refused. Three refusals to Hitler was enough to convince the family that Austria might no longer be safe for them and they, accompanied by Father Wasner, left the country in late 1938 - by train to Italy. (Captain Von Trapp's birthplace was reallocated from the Austro-Hungarian empire to Italy in the redrawing of borders following World War I allowing him to claim Italian citizenship). The family toured in Europe further and eventually came to America. They settled in Stowe Vermont where they opened a ski lodge / hotel bearing their name, a concern that remains vital today and is run by second, third and fourth generation Trapps. Georg died there of pulmonary disease in 1946 and Maria, at the age of 82, in 1987.

The subject matter of the musical, as it includes nuns, Nazis, children's choirs and enough dirndls and lederhosen for several operettas, frequently threatens to collapse into a pile of sentimental kitsch. It's not helped by Rodgers and Hammerstein's familiar, but simplistic score. Despite all of the odds against it, the film succeeds, and continues to work on its own terms. Why this should be so is a little unclear, but I think much of it has to do with the backbone of truth that runs throughout the show. These are real events happening to real people (at the time of the creation of the musical, the Trapp Family Singers were relatively well known - they're more distant now, but the story has entered the collective unconsciousness in this country at least). Most of the more improbable details, such as the making of the play clothes and the whistle signals, are based on real events which no screenwriter would dare to dream up. The film is also anchored by strong performances in the leads. Christopher Plummer worked hard with Lehmann to create a Captain who is hard edged, but real. Julie Andrews, of the crystalline voice and sugary disposition, also tries her best to quell the schmaltz when she can, but she's often undone by having to play many of her scenes with a bevy of youngsters. Eleanor Parker, as the villain of the piece, has a rip-roaring good time arching her eyebrows and gliding through scenes in a succession of eye-popping outfits.

The performers who play the children rarely stand out as individuals as almost all their scenes are en masse. It's a bit like watching a choreographed ant colony at times, especially when they're dressed alike. Only Liesl (Charmian Carr), develops any real personality in her subplot romance with the telegraph boy Rolf (Daniel Truhitte). Their Sixteen Going on Seventeen remains a joyous expression of teen love. Several of the other child performers went on to continued careers. Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich) found fame in the 70s on TV as Spiderman, for instance. Heather Menzies (Louisa) and Angela Cartwright (Brigitta) also pop up from time to time.

More than anything else, the luscious location photography of Salzburg and its surrounding countryside are what give the film its brio. It's impossible not to be carried away by the characters with those intoxicating views behind them, especially when the lush orchestrations of Irwin Kostal glide in with a familiar melody. Musical highlights include Maria's singing of the title number, the Do-Re-Mi montage as Maria and the children explore Salzburg, and the Captain's singing of Edelweiss as a requiem for his lost homeland.

The Sound of Music was an enormous success for Twentieth Century Fox and played for years in its initial release, rescuing the studio from near bankruptcy. It's phenomenal financial returns led every studio in Hollywood to ready a slate of big budget family friendly musical adaptations in an attempt to recapture the magic and the money. Some (Oliver!) succeeded, but the majority (Dr. Doolittle, Sweet Charity, Song of Norway) bombed. The financial losses sent the studios reeling as they entered the 70s, allowing a new generation of film makers, with names such as Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas and DePalma, to enter the Hollywood system with low budget new ideas.

The DVD release is a two disc affair. The first disc includes a lovely transfer of the film in wide screen with a good stereo audio mix. There is an alternate sound track with commentary by Robert Wise which isolates the score allowing home theater karaoke. The second disc contains a plethora of extras including historical background on the film and real events, a hoot of a period featurette in which starlet Charmian Carr explores Salzburg, and a ninety minute documentary from 1994 which features many of the principal cast and crew reminiscing about the making of the film.

Mountain singing. Abbey singing. Bus singing. Fiacre singing. Staircase singing. Lakeside singing. Stage singing. Folk dancing. Gazebo dancing. Goat dancing. Sourpuss nun. Happy nun. Row boat tipping. Tree climbing. Bicycle riding. Moonlit graveyard. Stolen distributor caps.

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