Bloom and Grow Forever
Audrey Hepburn as Maria von Trapp?
In 1958, director Vincent J. Donehue was asked by Paramount Pictures to view two popular German movies based on the true-life story of the Trapp Family Singers. The films – DIE TRAPP-FAMILIE (1956), and DIE TRAPP-FAMILIE IN AMERIKA (1958) – had been combined into one, and dubbed into English. The studio was now asking Donehue to direct a Hollywood remake of the story, with Hepburn in the starring role.
The director had a better idea. He thought that Maria’s story would be an ideal vehicle for his friend, Mary Martin. An icon of the stage, Martin had starred on Broadway (and television) in PETER PAN, across America in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, and on Broadway and in the West End in SOUTH PACIFIC. A Broadway play starring Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp? It seemed a perfect fit to director Donehue; Martin, and her husband, producer Richard Halliday, quickly agreed.
They soon joined forces with the venerable playwriting team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Wielding dramatic license, Lindsay and Crouse streamlined Maria’s story, condensed the time frame (in real life, for instance, Maria and Georg were married 11 years before the Anschluss), and even reassigned the childrens’ names and gender.
As originally conceived, the play was to feature songs from the repertoire of the Trapp Family Singers, performed by Martin and other members of the cast. But then, Mary Martin had an inspired idea. She asked her good friends Richard Rodgers (the composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (the lyricist) if they would write a song especially for her to sing in her new play.
R&H were skeptical. Compete with Schubert, Brahms and hymns? No thank you. R&H felt that the play should either be transformed into a musical, with an entirely new score that they would write, or it should remain a play, dotted with authentic folk music. Furthermore, the ever-in-demand R&H cautioned that if they were to join this project, it would have to wait at least one year since they were in the midst of writing another musical, FLOWER DRUM SONG.
The flattering – and wise – reply from Martin & Co.? “We’ll wait.”
FLOWER DRUM SONG opened on Broadway in December of 1958. By early spring of 1959, R&H were hard at work on the score for the new musical – the first and only time in their career that Hammerstein supplied the lyrics only, since Lindsay and Crouse were writing the libretto. The foursome worked together well – and fruitfully. The musical was ready to go by mid-summer; rehearsals began in August, the world premiere occurred in New Haven in October, and Broadway had a new smash hit musical by November.
Entitled THE SOUND OF MUSIC, it opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on November 16, 1959, with record-breaking advance ticket sales of $2 million on a top ticket price of $5. Critical reaction was mixed, but the public was not so ambivalent: though fated to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last musical (Hammerstein died the summer after the opening), THE SOUND OF MUSIC would go on to become one of their greatest successes.
Mary Martin lead the Broadway company, joined by Theodore Bikel as Captain von Trapp. It ran on Broadway for over 1400 performances, and earned eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. (Its competitors that season included the saga of another strong-willed mother figure who lures her children into the spotlight – GYPSY – and a musical called ONCE UPON A MATTRESS that was composed by Rodgers’ daughter, Mary.)
The first international production premiered at the Palace Theatre in London in May of 1961, with Jean Bayless as Maria and Roger Dann as Captain von Trapp. It ran for an astonishing total of six years and became the longest-running American musical in London history — that is, until 2003, when a couple of tough dames from Chicago knocked Maria off her perch.
Throughout the early 1960s, the musical’s popularity grew. A US National Tour, headed by future TV star Florence Henderson, took THE SOUND OF MUSIC to more than 40 American cities from 1961 to 1963, while major productions also opened in Australia and South Africa.
And then there was…the film.
Doris Day, Leslie Caron, Grace Kelly and, yes, Audrey Hepburn were considered for the leading role. However, as soon as the film’s director Robert Wise, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and producer Saul Chaplin saw advance clips from Disney’s MARY POPPINS, they knew that Julie Andrews would be their Maria. Christopher Plummer was cast in the role of the Captain, Peggy Wood as the Mother Abbess, Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn as Elsa and Max, and Charmian Carr as Liesl, leading a bevy of on-screen brothers and sisters.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC was filmed in less than a year. Rehearsals and preliminary shooting began in Los Angeles in the spring of 1964 (the first scenes shot involved Maria and the children in her bedroom during the rainstorm), and then the company decamped to Salzburg, Austria, to film in the city parks, ancient streets, and Alpine meadows where the real Maria had lived and walked. (The real Maria, in fact, showed up on the set one day, and talked her way into a cameo bit – strolling past Julie Andrews in a Salzburg square during “I Have Confidence.”) For eleven weeks that summer, director Wise and his team dodged the raindrops, prayed (often in vain) for a peek of sun, and eventually came away with some of the most stunning on-location sequences ever captured on film.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC opened in March of 1965 and became a sensation. Though once again scorned by some in the press, it didn’t matter: the movie version – like the stage musical – proved to be an enduring audience favorite. It went on to win 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and soon became the highest-grossing film in history. It is remarkable to consider that from 1966 to 1972 – while America was undergoing convulsions of violence over assassinations, a failed war, and societal revolution – THE SOUND OF MUSIC was, according to Variety, the “All Time Box Office Champion.” In straight dollar terms, other movies would eventually surpass it, but even today, THE SOUND OF MUSIC remains the most successful movie musical in history.
The film has generated its own SOUND OF MUSIC sub-culture, from countless broadcasts on television and showings in cinemas, to constant reissues in the video and DVD market, where it is an evergreen classic. In a category all its own is the irrepressible SING-A-LONG-A SOUND OF MUSIC phenomenon, which started modestly at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square in 1999 (where it still bubbles along), and has since gone on to cinemas and film festivals the world over. Here, fans come dressed in lederhosen, dirndls, nuns’ habits, or as the more highly-conceptualized “wild geese with moon on their wings,” “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes” or simply, “a drop of golden sun.” One truly hasn’t lived until one has experienced SINGALONG SOUND OF MUSIC, as its known in the States, at California’s Hollywood Bowl; there, capacity crowds of up to18,000 people yodel in unison, swoon as one for the Captain, and reverently wave their glowing mobile phones in the dark during “Edelweiss.”
The film’s ongoing popularity has helped the stage piece earn its pride of place as the world’s most popular musical. Translated into dozens of languages, it continually answers the question – “How do you find the word that means Maria?”
In France, it is known as La mélodie du bonheur (“The Melody of Happiness”); in Germany, Meine Lieder, Meine Träume (“My Songs, My Dreams”); in Italy, Tutti insieme Appassionatamente (“All Together with Passion”); in the Netherlands, De mooiste muziek (“The Most Beautiful Music”); in Spain, Sonrisas y Lágrimas (“Smiles and Tears”). In Portugal, it is Música no Coraçno (“Music of the Heart”), while in Portugese-speaking Brazil, it is A novica rebelde (“The Rebel Novice.”)
Since the turn of the 21st Century, THE SOUND OF MUSIC has enjoyed major productions in Italy, Israel, Portugal, and the Netherlands, with an American company touring across China and throughout Southeast Asia. London’s West End saw its last major production in 1981, when Petula Clark lead a company over the Alps from the stage of the Apollo Victoria. In New York, pop star Debby Boone starred in a 1990 revival at New York City Opera, directed by James Hammerstein, while a 1998 Broadway revival featured Rebecca Luker. That production, which eventually starred TV heartthrob Richard Chamberlain as the Captain, also launched a US tour and a hugely successful Australian run with Lisa McCune.
Bringing the story full circle, in 2005 the Vienna Volksoper presented the first fully-staged production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC ever given in Austria, the country where its story is set. Spoken and sung entirely in German, it was warmly received by the Austrian public, and remains a fixture of the Volksoper repertory. Salzburg, too, has rediscovered its former residents, the von Trapps. SOUND OF MUSIC tours proliferate the city, SOUND OF MUSIC concerts are given in the Mirabell Gardens in the summertime, and SOUND OF MUSIC stamps are sold at local post offices. Future plans include a SOUND OF MUSIC museum in Salzburg, and a version of the musical performed by the world-famous Salzburg Marionettes.
From Salzburg to South Africa, from Vienna to Virginia, and from London, Ontario, to the London Palladium, THE SOUND OF MUSIC continues to flourish.
May it bloom and grow forever.
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By Bert Fink, Senior Vice President of Communications for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization
Copyright © 2007 The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
All Photographs Courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization