Six decades after “The Sound of Music” debuted on Broadway, it remains a cultural touchstone in community theaters, in books, on streaming services and inspiring an Ariana Grande video.
“Show About a Singing Family Arrives.”
That is what The New York Times said about a musical that opened on Broadway on Nov. 16, 1959. It was hardly just a “singing family,” though: It was the debut of “The Sound of Music,” which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month, and went on to become an Oscar-winning blockbuster that starred Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp.
The musical, about a plucky novice-turned-governess who fled Austria to escape the Nazis, remains a cultural touchstone. “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s recent ode to conspicuous consumption, was inspired by “My Favorite Things,” a song from the show. The original cast recording was recently re-released for the anniversary. And the musical continues to thrive onstage, with scores of performances this holiday season planned in theaters from Sarasota, Fla., to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Now, too, Ms. Andrews is back, this time promoting her new book, “Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years,” which has renewed interest in the 1965 movie. She recently told Graham Norton that one of the young actors almost died filming a boat scene because the girl couldn’t swim. (“I had to swim like mad to get to her,” Ms. Andrews said.) It’s no surprise too that “The Sound of Music,” a holiday favorite, is being promoted in ads for Disney Plus, the entertainment giant’s new streaming service.
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Tom Santopietro, the author of “The Sound of Music Story,” said the musical’s debut less than 15 years after the end of World War II “was very American.”
“It fit who we felt we were then,” he said. “We would roll up our sleeves, put our hands on our hips and we would solve our own problems, just like Maria. We believed in the happy ending.”
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The original Broadway musical was based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp and starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as the stern patriarch, Capt. Georg von Trapp. In the musical, Maria takes a job as a governess in 1930s Austria, on leave from the abbey where she is training to be a nun. She grows close with her seven charges and, later, falls in love with the widowed Captain von Trapp. The couple wed and, after the captain is asked to join the German Navy, the family flees. In Maria von Trapp’s memoir, they end up in the United States.
The show won five Tony Awards, including best musical, and was created by the songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who collaborated on some of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”
Some reviewers charged the play with being overly sentimental. But the soundtrack was a smash, with hits like “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” that still endure. And fans adored it.
“You are likely to lose your heart to the seven singing children,” The Times wrote in 1959. It added: “The sound of music is always moving. Occasionally, it is also glorious.”
The story, too, propelled Austria into an uncomfortable spotlight. The musical was not performed in a large theater there until 2005, according to news reports, mostly because Austrians were offended by what some deemed as a lighthearted look at its Nazi past. Now, though, and because of the movie’s success, Salzburg revels in its cultural cachet, with “Sound of Music” tours, marionette shows and concerts.
In her memoir, Ms. Andrews said she was unmoved by the musical. Before she was cast in the movie adaptation, Ms. Andrews and the comedian Carol Burnett spoofed it in a sketch called “The Pratt Family Singers” during a 1962 television special. “I’m ashamed to admit that, at the time, we weren’t wildly impressed,” Ms. Andrews wrote.
The original production spawned interpretations over the years. It was revived on Broadway in 1998. In 2013, NBC aired a live television production of “The Sound of Music” that was panned by critics. It was remade again for television in 2015.
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Few, though, rivaled the original. Mr. Santopietro said the musical, which he saw as a boy, resonated with theatergoers because it symbolized freedom from oppression. “For Maria, it is freedom from the abbey,” he said. “The children are free of the rigid life with their father.” The family, too, escaped the Nazis for a better life in the United States. “It is honest sentiment,” he said. “I think today we are afraid of honest sentiment.”
Raymond Knapp, a professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, wondered whether the story behind “The Sound of Music,” if it were made for Broadway today, would reflect the Trump administration’s policies toward immigration. “These people were refugees and today it would be harder for them to come to the United States,” he said of the von Trapps. “In the 1950s and 1960s, America thought of itself as a welcoming place.”
Some people have embraced the play as humor for the Trump resistance. At least one past president was a fan of the movie: According to Richard Reeves’s biography of Ronald Reagan, the president once passed on reading a briefing book ahead of a Group of 7 summit meeting, telling Jim Baker, then his chief of staff, “Well, Jim, ‘The Sound of Music’ was on last night.”
Still, the story had staying power, Professor Knapp said, because the songs underscored “the importance of music to our culture and to ourselves.” Captain von Trapp rekindled his affection for his children when he played the guitar and sang with them. Music also evoked his love for Maria. “That has a particular resonance,” Professor Knapp said. “The music symbolized feeling and caring, a reawakening of the captain.”
Mr. Santopietro said he had attended a number of “Sound of Music” singalongs. There, attendees dress in campy costumes — nuns are quite popular, as is Maria — and embrace the movie’s show tunes. “They come with a sense of irony and, in about 30 or 40 minutes, people drop the irony and get caught up in the story,” he added.
And that is, perhaps, the main reason it endures. “People want to experience it,” Professor Knapp said. “For a few hours, they want to be that family.”
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