Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sound of Music: Songs and Nuns and Children, Oh My!

I realized over the weekend that I have managed to go through half the year and have only talked about four musicals ("All That Jazz," "Easter Parade," "Mamma Mia!," and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame").  Four, only four!  From me, the musical-obsessed child!  And not one of them has been the biggest one.  So it's about time I say...time to talk about "The Sound of Music" (1965).

I'm sure you know this story (if you don't, you probably live under a rock).  Julie Andrews stars as Maria, a nun-in-training who becomes the governess for seven children and falls in love with their widowed father Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), all the while singing their way through Salzburg, Austria.  However, when the Anschluss happens, they must flee Austria to stay free of the Nazis.  This is the mega-sensational film adaptation of the smash-hit Broadway play by the legendary team Rogers and Hammerstein.  Directed by Robert Wise and screenplay written by Ernest Lehman, it broke the 25-year-old box office record held by "Gone With the Wind" and went on to win Best Picture and four others at the Academy Awards that year.

I consider this film my first true favorite, and I owe it all to my brother.  I know I've mentioned before how much my brother has influenced my taste growing up by watching his choice of film, but this is something different.  Musicals were not really his thing back then.  But, for my 12th birthday, he bought me the Silver Anniversary VHS set of "The Sound of Music."  It was the first ever store-bought film of my very own.  Sure, we had family copies of things that we all watched together, but this was the first time anyone had given me personally a movie.  And that was it, I was hooked.  If there were devices on VHS tapes counting how many times a tape was viewed, I'm sure my copy would be 200-something.  And I still have that VHS today.  I've wanted to get the DVD of "Sound of Music" for some time now (I mean, my copy isn't even letterbox!)  But I just can't seem to get rid of my gift.  It's what started it all.

"The Sound of Music" opened on Broadway in November of 1959, starring Mary Martin as Maria, and became an instant success, winning numerous Tony Awards.  When Twentieth Century Fox started production of the film version though, they needed fresh faces for all the leads.  Wise, who finally agreed to direct after pre-production of "The Sand Pebbles" dragged on for too long, wanted only one person for Maria - Julie Andrews.  At the time, Andrews was only really known for her stage work.  "Mary Poppins," her first film, had not even been released yet, but he had seen some rushes from Walt Disney of "Poppins" and knew the mainstream unknown was the one.  (Ironically enough, Andrews had lost out on playing Eliza in the film adaptation of "My Fair Lady," a role she originated on Broadway, because she was an unknown.)  At first, she was a little wary, thinking Maria was too similar to Mary Poppins, but luckily she changed her mind, because it is her talent and presence that really make "The Sound of Music" soar.  Also, during the filming of "Music," she won her Oscar for "Poppins," solidifying her as a star.

As for the von Trapp children, Wise searched both the US and UK for the perfect group of kids.  He needed them to truly look like a family more than anything, so regardless of talent, he auditioned over 200 kids from both sides of the Atlantic.  Among some of the young hopefuls were Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Patty Duke, and the four oldest Osmond brothers.  Angela Cartwright, who already had years of experience under her belt from working on "The Danny Thomas Show," won the part of Brigitta, but she originally auditioned for the role of Louisa, donned with a blond wig and all.  She later said she was glad she got Brigitta because that personality suited her more...and she didn't have to dye her hair.  A couple of the boys, though, had to go through grueling hair bleaching for their parts.  Both Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich) and Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe) each had to have continuous dye jobs throughout filming so that they would appear more Austrian. 

As for the Captain, Wise knew he needed someone who would appear stern and strong, but still be lovable and attainable.  He thought of lots of stars, like Yul Brynner, Sean Connery, and Richard Burton, but the only actor he really wanted was Christopher Plummer, known for his Shakespearean stage acting at the time.  Plummer initially refused, so Wise had to court him personally to get him to accept.  Plummer did and to his dismay.  He is the only actor who considered the experience grueling.  He called the story too saccharine, and compared working with Andrews to "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card every day." (Plummer and Andrews have remained close friends ever since "Music.")  And even though he considers "The Sound of Music" (or "The Sound of Mucus" as he likes to call it) the shallowest role he has ever played, it is too his testament that this film isn't more sugary than it already is.  Wise knew the story was super sweet in and of itself, so he desperately tried to make it as real as possible.  That's why they spent 11 weeks filming on location in Austria, and that the colors are so much more muted than standard musicals of the time.  And that's why Wise needed Plummer's gravitas for Captain von Trapp, something many of the critics picked up on.

And, boy, did I have a crush on Plummer when I was a kid!  This was truly the start of my romantics.   I used to watch Plummer's and Andrews' scenes over and over again.  Of course, I'm not the only who had a crush on Plummer.  Charmain Carr, who played the eldest von Trapp kid Liesl and who sang the famous "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," was actually 21 during filming.  She admitted in her autobiography to having a crush on Plummer, then 35, and flirting with him some.  Plummer, being the character he is, flirted back a little too, but, don't worry, nothing went beyond that.

As for the music, I can still sing every song, backwards and forwards.  They are all classics stuck in our heads like "Do-Re-Mi" and "My Favorite Things" (which, by the way, needs to stop being sung at Christmas.  It's not a Christmas song!  It's a scared-of-thunder song!)  Two of my favorite songs from the film, "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good," were not part of the original stage production at all.  Wise and Lehman went to Richard Rogers and asked him to write two new songs for the film.  (Hammerstein died in 1960, with "The Sound of Music" being his last play.)  The songs have become so synonymous with the story that most stage productions nowadays use those songs as well.

And be sure not to blink when you see Sister Sophia.  She is Marni Nixon.  You won't recognize her face, but you might recognize her voice.  She was the singing voice for Deborah Kerr in "The King and I," Natalie Wood in Wise's previous Best Picture winner "West Side Story," and even Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (that Andrews, of course, lost out on).  This was the first of a very few onscreen roles in her career.  She didn't have to dub Andrews for "Music."  However, Plummer ended up having to be dubbed by singer Bill Lee, and Peggy Wood, knowing she couldn't hit the high notes anymore at age 72, was dubbed by Margery McKay.  As for the children, they all sang but Wise added about 4 or so more children to the soundtrack singing, to give them a fuller sound.

So, get out your lederhosen and watch "The Sound of Music"!  And if you're in LA, get your tickets for the Hollywood Bowl's "Sound of Music" Sing-along in September.  (I'm going for the first time myself this year and can't wait!)  And, Stephen, thanks so much for the gift!  You rock!  Happy birthday this weekend!  Love you!  Until Friday, everyone.  Have a great week.

(Post-tidbit: In 1962, before she was even cast in "The Sound of Music," Julie Andrews did a spoof of the musical with Carol Burnett during "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall."  Watch the hilarious number below.)


  1. I went to the Sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend. Soooooo much fun! I highly recommend it if you can ever go!!

  2. Yeah, I wanted to visit Sing-along as well, but there were certain circumstances. When will it be held next time. I think i could find some free time.
    great write-up.

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