1965's "The Sound of Music" is everything a bad musical should be.
Providing more sap than a forest full of Vermont maples, it has coy, silly
songs, an inane, innocuous script, and unbelievably sugary characters. So
why is it one of my favorite musicals? OK, go ahead. Shoot me at twenty
paces. But after all this time, it still remains a guilty pleasure. I find
myself going for a tub of rocky road ice cream and Rodgers & Hammerstein's
immortal classic whenever the real world gets to be too much. I seem to
play it a lot around tax time.
And I'm not alone. Why is it still considered the most popular musical of
all time? Well, first of all they spared no expense. The extremely
well-produced blockbuster has gorgeous, eye-popping scenery. From the first
moment Julie Andrews flails her arms and circles around on that beautiful
sunny hillside singing the rousing title song, I know I'm being swept away
to another world. I'm not in Kansas anymore...or L.A., anyway. The
panoramic Salzburg background complements and never intimidates or takes
away from the characters or their story (like the other R & H extravaganza
"South Pacific.") That in itself is an incredible feat.
Now about those songs. Almost every one of them is absolute drivel. So
what makes them work? Easy. The utter joy and sincerity of the cast who
sings the infectious, hummable tunes, which are backed by extremely moving
orchestrations and an exceptionally beautiful score. It's hard to resist
Maria prancing about, pillow-fighting with a bunch of knee-highs and gushing
about her most favorite things. Or the austere Captain Von Trapp (the
meticulous Christopher Plummer) turning to butter after hearing his brood
sing in perfect harmony for the first time (with no prior lessons even) and
joining right in. Or the Mother Superior's soaring number that unknowingly
forewarns Maria to head for the hills (I mean, mountains) before the Nazis
escort them elsewhere. Or the 16-year-old going on 17 squealing with
delight after receiving her first kiss. Or the kids working up a clever
little ditty to leave their formal party guests when its time for bed. Or
two people declaring their love in a moonlit gazebo. The songs work because
they come straight from and aim for the heart, not the head, which is
exactly the place the viewer should be coming from when watching this movie.
If the songs don't transcend the script (which they didn't prior to the
70s), they certainly transcend the mood.
The script is undeniably trite and probably the film's weakest link. But
again, the characters play it straight all the way. Not one actor looks
embarrassed. Every scene is done with total enthusiasm and total
commitment, and the performers who are telling the story are pitch-perfect
and picture perfect.
And as for the characters. Try and think of anybody better than jubilant,
crop-haired Julie Andrews as a postulant nun who has gorgeous pipes, can
make play clothes out of curtains, can set up and operate marionette shows
at the drop of a hat, and is confident enough to convince a man that a
failed nun is ideal marriage material. I certainly can't. Thank heavens
for her Oscar-winning "Mary Poppins" the year before or we might have gotten
Julie LONDON instead! After all, Andrews did lose out on "My Fair Lady" the
year before. But now certifiably bankable, she proved she could handle
this dream role. Andrews is cutely silly, cutely stubborn, cutely astute,
cutely shattered and cutely...well, cute. She gives the most wholesomely
appealing musical perf since Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." To
actually make you forget Mary Martin in the Broadway role takes some doing
and she does it effortlessly. Christopher Plummer is all seriousness,
handsomely patrician, and quite a catch for anybody...much less a nun. I
can't think of anyone more suitable for this role either. As for the Seven
Little Foys, I mean the Von Trapp children, they are adorable and perfect in
their own ways too, whether they are marching or singing, creating their
own individual personalities by film's end.
Richard Haydn as Max and Eleanor Parker as the flamboyant, haughty Baroness
provide wonderful catty relief. Despite having their musical numbers
snatched away from them, they make up for it with droll, sophisticated
humor. The elegant, perfectly coiffed Parker is particularly delicious as
Maria's chief romantic rival, getting some of the film's best zingers and
delivering them with biting understatement. Parker developed a devout cult
following after this role. Peggy Wood's Mother Superior is suitably
reverent and inspiring.
For those who tear "The Sound of Music" apart for its shameless,
sugar-coated manipulations, well, I can respect that. But to attack it for
its political and historical inaccuracies is like attacking "Peter Pan" for
being a subversive plot that encourages young children to run away from
home. It's ludicrous. Despite the fact that it's based on a true story,
we're not watching "The Sound of Music" for stark realism. Like a sparkling
and lavish Ernst Lubitsch operetta, we want a feel-good movie, with
feel-good songs, with a feel-good story, and a feel-good ending. Nothing
more. If you want a movie that presents a potent depiction of pre-war
Austria or anti-Nazi sentiment, rent "Holocaust" or "Schindler's List."
Here, we want to believe that a group of nuns can tear out an automobile
carburetor and save the world! Period.
I suppose the reality-based MTV generation cannot truly respect or relate to
the relative innocence and pure escapism like "The Sound of Music." If this
movie was made today I'm afraid the Von Trapp children would not be dangling
out of trees for fear of drive-by shooters. It's a tough new world today,
sad to say. The 50s and 60s are looking better all the
Anyway, for what it's worth, "The Sound of Music" is indeed schmaltz, but
its QUALITY schmaltz at its very, very best.