“The hills are alive, with the sound of music…”
– Title Drop in the film’s opening
As the song goes, “Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start…”
In September of 1938, Georg and Maria von Trapp, who, along with their seven children, made up the talented singing group The Von Trapp Family Singers, emigrated from Austria to America to escape the growing hostility of Hitler’s early years in power. Their story was made into a film in 1956, “The Trapp Family”, which was seen by Broadway director Vincent J. Donehue. He thought it would be the perfect vehicle for his actress friend Mary Martin and brought on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, aka Rodgers and Hammerstein, aka the songwriting team known for “South Pacific” and “The King and I” among others, to write a couple of songs for it. Eventually R&H ended up turning the play with music into a full-out musical, and in the process created one of the most iconic and beloved shows to date. The original production won five out of its nine nominated Tonys, many of its songs have become vocal standards, and it’s enjoyed countless revivals on Broadway and the high school theater circuit (I myself was in my school’s production; despite the fact I had a good chance of playing Liesl I got the role of the housekeeper because the director liked to play favorites when casting).
Naturally the show’s success meant a film adaptation was inevitable, and much of the show’s original creative team was on board. Cancer had other plans, however, and it sadly took the life of Oscar Hammerstein shortly after the original theatrical production premiered, leaving Rodgers to re-work the music and write new songs on his own. Despite losing half of Rodgers and Hammerstein, there wasn’t much difficulty in getting the film made apart from coaxing Robert Wise – who had already directed the Oscar-winning adaptation of West Side Story and was the first choice to direct this movie – to sign on. Another first choice to play Maria was Julie Andrews, who screenwriter Ernest Lehman clamored to join immediately after seeing her in Mary Poppins. A much harder actor to get was Christopher Plummer for the role of Captain Von Trapp; he eventually agreed but only if he could work with Lehman to improve the character. Normally when an actor does this it rarely turns out well (and Plummer later admitted that he was quite arrogant at the time due to his successful stage career), but I think Plummer’s enhancements were a major improvement to Captain Von Trapp, and I’ll get into why later.
The Sound of Music is often cited by critics and theater fans in general as one of the greatest musicals of all time, and arguably the best stage-to-screen adaptations to date – and they’re not wrong. As someone who’s been in the stage version, I personally think the movie is even better (and that’s not bitterness towards the director talking). The musical numbers are iconic to the point of being parodied countless times AND most revivals of the show go out of their way to incorporate elements from the film rather than follow the show’s original book. The Hollywood Bowl in California has a sing-along with the movie every year that always sells out, Austria has a popular tour route that visits locations where the film was shot, it’s been shown annually on ABC during the holidays since 1976, and it has the unusual distinction of being Seth McFarlane’s favorite movie (then again, looking at how many times he’s referenced it on his shows, it’s no big surprise. I swear he hosted the Oscars just so he could make this joke when introducing Christopher Plummer).
So after all that buildup, how does the film hold up? Let’s find out.
We open on a version of the 20th Century Fox logo without the traditional fanfare. Sounds weird, huh? It’s hard to imagine it without the music that always accompanies it, but it leads into the film in a way that took Robert Wise a lot of convincing on his part to accomplish, and pays off brilliantly. The film truly begins on a montage of the Austrian countryside, starting through the clouds and flying over the mountains. I remember hating this part as a kid because there was no music and it felt like it dragged on forever. It was something I never truly appreciated until I was older, however. Slowly the film draws us into its world, showing us the majesty and making us anticipate the Also, thanks to the magic of blu-ray, we can hear the orchestra starting up in places like snatches of birdsong on the wind, all leading up to the film’s most iconic shot – in one long take, we pull in on a vast green hill, where a tiny lone figure climbs up and spins in rapture as we draw closer.
And the opening song…my words can do no justice. Enjoy.
Everything from the visuals to Julie Andrew’s beautiful voice makes it one of the greatest film openings of all time. I admit, it’s hard for me not to get a little choked up seeing it.
The sound of church bells calls Maria away and after returning for her discarded habit, she runs to the abbey. After the opening credits, we see the nuns in the abbey performing mass, and regardless of whether or not you’re religious in any capacity, this whole scene is beautifully shot. It gives you the idea of how these nuns live, showing their devotion to God through their solemnity.
After the mass, Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is approached by one of the sisters who is searching for Maria. Mother Abess recommends searching somewhere unusual since Maria herself is “unusual”. This leads into her and the rest of the nuns, Sister Margaretta, Berthe and Sophia (Anna Lee, Portia Nelson and Marni Nixon respectively) discussing the situation that is Maria – she is a novice hoping to take her vows, but she has a youthful enthusiasm and playfulness that is impossible to tame. Sisters Margaretta and Sophia find her antics amusing, but Sister Berte finds her immature and out of place in the abbey. The others are split, and they sing about her transgressions – her lateness for everything except supper, her honest penance but (gasp!) singing in the abbey – in “How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Maria”, a tune that’s impossible to get out of your head once you hear it. As if to prove their point, Maria herself interrupts the number by running in to wash up and sneak into the chapel, only to realize she’s been caught and skulks off.
Also, if I may, I’d like to give a shout-out to Marni Nixon. You’ve probably heard her sing in a lot of other classic musicals but have never seen her face – this is because she was hired to dub over the singing for some of the actresses. Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Deborah Kerr in The King And I, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady are all guilty of “stealing” her voice.
Robert Wise liked Miss Nixon enough to recognize that she could act as well as sing, and gave her a role in the film. It’s nice that after a long time of singing behind the scenes, she was able to finally do so onscreen.