Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: The Sound of Music

Okay, I jumped the gun a little.  I was going to wait to review classic musicals after I finished with the most notable musicals from the past 20 years.  However, the recent Carrie Underwood take, plus the movie's annual pre-Christmas airing, left The Sound of Music (1965) fresh in my mind.  So what the hell?  Why not write about my favorite movie musical while it is still fresh?

The Sound of Music was adapted from the 1959 stage musical of the same name, which itself was (loosely) based on real life events.  In real life, 18-year-old Maria Augusta Kutschera entered Salzberg's Nonnberg Abbey as a postulant, hoping to become a nun.  Having trained as a school teacher, she accepted an assignment to teach one of Captain Georg von Trapp's seven children.  Captain von Trapp fell in love with Maria, and Maria married him more out of love for his children than for him.  They eventually had a few more children of their own.  Captain von Trapp then lost most of the family fortune in 1935 when he placed it in a friend's unstable bank.  Then the Nazis took over Austria and drafted Captain von Trapp into their navy, and the family fled... by taking a train to Italy.  From there, the family von Trapp emigrated to the United States, eventually running a resort in Vermont.  Frequently known as "the Trapp family," they sang in public to earn money.

Their story eventually became a film in 1956 called The Trapp Family, which was followed by the 1958 The Trapp Family in America.  Both caught the attention of Vincent Donehue, a stage director, who the collaborated with Rodgers and Hammerstein to create a stage musical.  That musical opened in 1959, starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel.  It received good reviews and was made a movie directed by Robert Wise, starring the incomparable Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Note that I say The Sound of Music is my favorite movie musical, rather than my favorite musical.  The stage musical has problems that make it much less lovable.  The movie not only fixed those, but went above and beyond, creating an unforgettable movie experience. 

The Good

Everything!  No really, this movie is not only dramatically better than the stage version, but stands out as one of the best movie musical adaptations ever.  But it would probably be easier to break down the things I like best.

Fantastic Acting.  That only becomes clearer when comparing this to the televised stage version.  Julie Andrews walks a tightrope in a role that could have easily been cloying, making Maria effervescent, yet also toned down and dignified.  Likewise, Christopher Plummer's snarky wit saves his role from being too treacly.  The supporting players are excellent, particularly Eleanor Parker as Baroness Schrader, Richard Haydn as Max Detweiler, and Peggy Wood as the Mother Abbess.  While the children can get a bit too cutesy at times, they still feel like real children and have great chemistry with Andrews.  Charmian Carr shines as Liesl, the only Von Trapp child to have her own subplot.
Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp

The Hills Are Alive!  Perhaps the best decision (apart from casting Andrews) was to film The Sound of Music on location in Austria.  From those opening aerial shots of the hills, the scenery becomes as much of a character as anyone cast.  Even "Do-Re-Mi," the most cloying song of the bunch, seems fresher and more energetic when set against this natural backdrop and Salzburg monuments.

Song Reordering.  There are substantial differences between the movie and stage musical, and nearly all of them work in the movie's favor.  For starters, the movie's Powers That Be realized that "My Favorite Things" was a much more compelling song than "Lonely Goatherd," and therefore it would make more sense for Maria to sing the former to the Von Trapp children during a thunderstorm.  Meanwhile, "Goatherd" is saved for later, perked up through the use of clever puppetry.

But it isn't just that -- the movie is restructured so that everything flows better and makes much more sense.  For example, when Maria arrives at the Von Trapp home, she doesn't just teach the children to sing "Do-Re-Mi" five minutes later, the way she does in the stage version.  No, first she has to endure the Von Trapp children's pranks, including a pine cone on her chair that leads to an embarrassing outburst.  Only after she cleverly turns the prank around on them, and sings to them during the thunderstorm, do they start to trust her.  Then she teaches them how to sing.

In addition to changing the song order, the movie added and removed some songs.  Gone were "How Can Love Survive?", "No Way to Stop It," and "An Ordinary Couple."  Added were "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good."  While I wish that the movie had kept "How Can Love Survive?" or "No Way to Stop It," I don't think it hurts to have them both absent.  Meanwhile, though "An Ordinary Couple" is a perfectly nice song, "Something Good" seems to fit the situation much better.  In "An Ordinary Couple," Maria and Captain von Trapp are already anticipating their future marriage, while in "Something Good," they are just confirming that they are in love.  "Something Good" was so, well, good, that even the televised stage version, which was otherwise faithful to the stage musical, kept it in place of "An Ordinary Couple."

Better Drama.  One underrated aspect of the movie is how much dignity the adult roles receive.  That has the effect of ratcheting up the stakes of the Maria-Captain-Baroness love triangle.  One genius change was to have the Baroness, not Brigitta, tell Maria that the Captain was in love with her.  While it seems a little odd for the Baroness to admit this so openly, it does show what the Baroness is willing to do to keep her man -- mess with the head of a poor, innocent would-be nun.

The dignity of the adult roles also allows the viewer to take Captain von Trapp's convictions seriously, so that the family's efforts to flee the Nazis are understood, even if that final hour is still problematic (see below).         

Oh Yes, and the Singing.  Marni Nixon sings in this movie... but this time, not as the dubbed-in voice for the lead character.  That is because Julie Andrews does pretty well for herself, thank you very much.

The Bad

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Captain Von Trapp?  The transformation of Captain von Trapp from a distant father who summons his children with a whistle to a loving father who sings with them is a challenge, which the movie does not entirely meet.  The recent televised stage version sought to meet it by having Stephen Moyer's Von Trapp be stiff and awkward with them, until Maria showed him how to behave more naturally.  The movie attempts to solve the problem by suggesting that Captain von Trapp is, well, a dick.

As played by Christopher Plummer, Captain von Trapp is suave and cold.  It is far more believable that he would take sadistic pleasure in summoning his children with a whistle than that he would sing with them.  To the movie's credit, it never suggests that Von Trapp completely transforms: even after he starts singing with them, he never interacts with them in a meaningful way.  One moment where he caresses Liesl's cheek looks stiff and unnatural, almost like the gesture is foreign to him.  The only reason he seems interested in the children is because he knows that Maria loves them, and since he has fallen for Maria, it would look wrong to keep ignoring them.  

The Baroness Gets the Short Shrift.  While it did not register with me when I was younger, I now see the extent to which Baroness Schrader is ill treated.  Here Captain von Trapp credits her for saving his life, visits her for weeks at a time in Vienna, and then drops her because he becomes hot for his governess.  It is the classic case of Sophisticated Woman losing to the Homemaker -- one that also appears in Mad Men's Season Four and is even more obvious in the stage musical, where Baroness Schrader is merely Elsa Schrader, a successful business woman.  She may be witty, intelligent, and a good fit with your personality, but if she can't raise kids, she's worthless.

And say what you will, but Plummer's Von Trapp meshes with the Baroness very well.  I could easily see the two sophisticates roaming Vienna, trading bon mots.  His falling for Maria is forgiven because, well, it's Julie Andrews and how can you not fall for Julie Andrews?  It's like falling in love with sunlight itself.  I suppose it could be argued that Von Trapp is just being rational: while he might sincerely love the Baroness, and might be distant from his children, he is not quite heartless enough to ship them off to boarding school.  Maria knows how to relate to them, much like his late wife, so rather than try something completely new, why not stick with what works?

It could also be argued that Maria was more the type of wife who would support Von Trapp's moral convictions when it comes to the Third Reich -- something driven home in the stage musical, where Elsa tries to convince Captain von Trapp to accept the Nazi invasion.  Still, his dumping of the Baroness was a pretty shitty thing to do to a decent woman who loved him.

That Final Hour.  No matter how well crafted the movie, it cannot prevent everything after the wedding from feeling tacked on.  Basically, from the moment we hear the big bell, we are watching a different movie.  The first one was about a spirited woman learning to be a governess and falling in love with her employer.  The second movie is a suspense thriller.  Will the Von Trapp family escape from the Nazis in time?!  Although the first movie provides hints of political conflict (the Austrian flag at the ball, for example), it in no way prepares the audience for what is to come.

While the final hour provides some good moments (such as Captain von Trapp choking up at the festival), there is a flatness to it.  Suddenly Rolf is nasty to Liesl without cause.  Suddenly Maria is the flawless mother and helpmate.  The only concern now is that the Von Trapps get out of Austria so that Captain von Trapp doesn't have to serve in the German navy, which... yawn.  It's especially annoying once you learn that their escape from Austria wasn't nearly as melodramatic in real life.

The incongruity of the final hour is why so many viewers turn off the movie after Maria and Captain von Trapp marry -- because for most people, that is the end of the movie. 


The Sound of Music is not the best of Rodger and Hammerstein's musicals, and it could have easily been a subpar movie experience like some of the duo's other adaptations to the screen.  Instead, everyone involved reached inside themselves and took it to a higher level, making it the best movie musical adaptation yet.  The story is well paced and the songs are well staged.  The acting is great and the scenery is fantastic.  Another musical may one day exceed what The Sound of Music accomplished, but that day has not yet come.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Sweeney Todd, Moulin Rouge

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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