Last night, after a birthday cake for Brother A, Mom switched to Channel 4 (NBC).
“I don’t know if I really want to watch this,” she muttered. She had tuned into the live television-cast of The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood as Maria. Prescient words from Mom.
I’d been eager to see it myself, so I eagerly bid Brother A a Happy Birthday and good-night to Mom, and drove back home to see this special. I’m a Sound of Music-head. I saw the film version when I was about seven while we were on vacation in the Adirondacks in New York State (can you think of a better place to see a movie about a singing nun in the Alps?) and just fell in love with it.
The original Broadway version, with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, premiered in March of 1959, about a month before I was a born, which just added a natural affinity to the Sound of Music. I became so enamored of the musical that I began reading books about the real story of Maria and Georg Von Trapp.
Von Trapp was a submarine captain, not a ship’s captain, and during his service with the German navy, sank more British ships than any other Austrian captain. His children were very upset when the Broadway show and the later film came out because it depicted him in the wrong light, as a cold, uncaring father.
Von Trapp adored his children. They didn’t dress in the sailors’ kits because he demanded it but because they wanted to. They wanted to be his “crew”. Von Trapp also didn’t insist that they be dressed to kill like the rich children they were; that was the command of one Princess Yvonne, his first wife’s cousin (Baroness Helsa in the play and movie). The girls always had to wear dresses and weren’t allowed to play with the boys. The older children also weren’t allowed to play with the younger.
In his prime, he was quite a handsome man. He was somewhat older by the time Maria came to his house. Maria wouldn’t have been particularly nervous about tutoring seven children since she was already a schoolteacher, with a classroom filled with 30 third graders. In any case, she was only there to tutor one of them, also named Maria, who had a heart ailment, the same ailment that took her mother’s life.
Maria didn’t return to the abbey because her prospects with the Captain were hopeless. Princess Yvonne was the one who told her the Captain was in love with her. Marriage wasn’t on Maria’s agenda; she wanted to become a nun. The nuns didn’t want her, though, and sent her back to Von Trapp, wailing, “What’s wrong with me? Why wouldn’t I make a good nun?”
As for Princess Yvonne, Von Trapp had proposed to her but kept turning him down. She was waiting until the oldest children could be sent off to boarding school. Maria married him, rather reluctantly because he was older. She married him in order to be a second mother to the children. This arrangement really didn’t sit too well with some of the Von Trapp children who didn’t want their mother “replaced.” But Von Trapp was the captain of the ship.
They didn’t leave Austria in the dramatic fashion of the musical and film. Von Trapp had duel citizenship in Austria and Italy; they simply boarded a train to catch a boat to America. The two sons were sent to England to live with their wealthy mother’s relatives. (Yes, it was Agnes who had all the money.)
Now that you know a little more about the truth of the Von Trapp’s, let us review last night’s performance. Having gotten home a little late, I missed the opening scenes but I was in time for Maria’s arrival at the Von Trapp estate and her introduction to the children.
Disappointment set in instantly. The actor playing the Captain was fine; in fact, I thought he emoted much better than Christopher Plummer did (who had more chemistry with actress Charmian Carr [Liesl] with whom he was alleged to be having an off-set affair than he did with the luminous Julie Andrews). Carrie Underwood has a pretty, but not particularly potent, voice and absolutely no acting skills. I thought I was watching a high school musical. In fact, I’ve seen high school productions of SOM with better acting (at least in the role of Maria).
The sets were beautiful. The children were actual children playing children their own ages. Little Gretl went a bit sour on one note, but since she was only five, allowances can be made. The same can’t be said for Carrie Underwood. By the end of “Do-Re-Mi,” by the time she got to the top of the fountain for the three-octave jump, she was gasping for oxygen. Maybe it was the high altitude of the Alps, where the air is thinner.
In all fairness, we should remember that Julie Andrews and Company were performing to a soundtrack. Still, Mary Martin did the play, which differs significantly in staging and order of songs. I’ve never been as much of a fan of the play (which I’ve seen several times) as am of the film. “Favorite Things” and “Lonely Goatherd” are seriously misplaced in the stage version.
Underwood’s acting was strictly high school, wooden, nervous, and uneven. She seemed to have flubbed her lines when she gives the whistle back to the Captain. She found her voice again at the end. But she’s no Julie Andrews. She sounded far too Midwest American, especially amongst an entirely British cast.
Where Underwood did well was with the children. Singing and dancing with them, she showed all the joy and spirit deserving of Maria Von Trapp. Seeing real kids in the roles as opposed to Hollywood children was refreshing. At one point in “Do-Re-Mi” a couple of the children gave her a dirty look. I couldn’t help wondering if she had trampled on their feet.
As for the rest of the cast, they were thoroughly professional. The cast of a black actress as the Mother Abbess of the Nonnberg Abbey was stretching political correctness and suspension of belief a little far. However, there is one thing to say about her performance – she was terrific; a better actress than her protégé novice.
Watching the stage version of the musical is interesting because you get to hear numbers left out of the film version. In this case, though, they switched from the play’s duet “An Ordinary Couple” (which is rather somber and dull) to the more melodic “Something Good.” “Something Good” sounds better but “Ordinary Couple” reflects what the couple will be facing once they leave Austria – and Von Trapp’s baronetcy – behind. In truth, Georg had already lost most of his money in a bank failure long before they ever left Austria. They had to close up most of the mansion and let out rooms to Catholic college students studying in Saltzberg. One of their tenants was a musical priest who taught the family how to sing in harmony. When the Von Trapps left Austria, he went with them.
If there’s one excellent reason for subjecting yourself to Carrie Underwood’s terrible acting and acceptable if not always sterling singing, it’s the song, “No Way to Stop It.” This was a song left out of the movie that shouldn’t have been. The Nazis are insistent that everyone in Saltzberg fly the Nazi flag. Von Trapp refuses. In real life, Hitler was coming to Saltzberg for the annual music festival (Saltzberg was the musical home of Wolfgang Mozart, among other musical luminaries). Von Trapp refused to fly the flag.
“I’d sooner hang my carpets out than his ugly flag; my carpets are more beautiful,” he supposedly said. And, supposedly, that’s exactly what he did; he hung out his carpets in protest.
Viewers aren’t given this unnecessary information. They also aren’t told that Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was not too far from the village outside of Saltzberg where the Von Trapp’s lived. Once, Maria and Georg encountered Hitler and some of his thugs drinking beer in a tavern. Maria reported that she thought he was a disgusting little man.
Georg’s agent Max and Helsa are dismayed at Georg’s uncooperative, belligerent attitude. That’s when they sing “No Way to Stop It”. ‘You must compromise with these people,’ Max says. ‘Or at least try to.’ ‘Just worry about yourself,’ Helsa adds. ‘That’s what I do.’
You dear attractive dewy-eyed idealist,
Today you have to learn to be a realist.
You may be bent on doing deed of daring due,
But up against a shark, what can a herring do?
Be wise, compromise.
Compromise, and be wise!
Let them think you’re on their side, be noncommittal.
I will not bow my head to the men I despise!
You won’t have to bow your head to stoop a little.
Why not learn to put your faith and your reliance,
On an obvious and simple fact of science?
A crazy planet full of crazy people,
Is somersaulting all around the sky.
And everytime it turns another somersault,
Another day goes by.
And there’s no way to stop it,
No, there’s no way to stop it.
No, you can’t stop it even if you tried.
So, I’m not going to worry,
No, I’m not going to worry,
Every time I see another day go by.
While somersaulting at a cockeyed angle,
We make a cockeyed circle ’round the sun.
And when we circle back to where we started from,
Another year has run.
[Helsa and Max]
And there’s no way to stop it,
No, there’s no way to stop it,
If the earth wants to roll around the sun.
You’re a fool if you worry.
You’re a fool if you worry,
Over anything but little number one.
That all absorbing character.
That fascinating creature.
That super special feature,
So every star on every whirling planet,
And every constellation in the sky,
Revolves around the center of the universe,
That lovely thing called, I.
And there’s no way to stop it.
No, there’s no way to stop it,
And I know, though I cannot tell you why (sigh).
Just as long as I’m living,
Just as long as I’m living,
There’ll be nothing else as wonderful as I.
I! I! I! Nothing else as wonderful as I!
The costuming of this production was very faithful to the period of the 1930s. As a consequence, you can hardly tell the difference between 1938 and 2013. Only the ladies’ hairstyles speak to another era. The political situation and the populace’s attitude towards it is all summed up in this song. Plunk it onto a CD, play it on a Top 40’s station, changing only the beat up a little bit (just like the hairstyles) and no one would suspect the singers were singing about Austria in 1938.
The play never addresses the audience’s reaction to Georg’s solo, “Edelweiss”. There’s no such song in Austria’s canon; Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it for the stage in 1959. In the film, the audience reacts approvingly to the song, sneering at the Nazis. But according to Maria’s biography, that wasn’t the way of it at all. Hitler had so infiltrated Austria with Nazi sympathizers, Germans who had emigrated to Austria for the very purpose of taking over the country (sound familiar?), that she said most of their neighbors were, in fact, Nazis, as well as most of their household staff.
Although may seem odd to say so, what was most missing from this production (besides some emotion from Underwood) was an audience. For years, we’ve deplored laugh tracks. However, this is a musical that needs an audience in front of it. It needed an audience to laugh at Max’s one-liners, giggle at the inexperienced Maria, cheer the uplifting song-and-dance numbers with Maria and the children, and applaud Georg Von Trapp’s courage.
There was too much silence in this Sound of Music.