‘The Sound of Music’ was not a perfect production

The Christmas season is supposed to be one of peace on earth, good will towards mankind. Sadly, it often isn’t so.

Last week, the NBC television network took a gamble on a style of presentation which has largely become something of the past: a live broadcast of a popular piece of musical theater.

Those who have been around long enough to remember watching Mary Martin leap through the nursery window, in the 1950s’ live broadcasts of the musical “Peter Pan,” understand that it is a style of presentation which can feel literally like magic.

Filmed or video taped material has become the standard format. If an actor or a singer makes a mistake, they simply do it again, and show the correct version. There is even an entire profession of singers who simply sing single notes, for several octaves. Then, if a singer with a similar voice to the note singer doesn’t quite edge his or her voice up to that B-flat, they simply remove the faulty pitch and patch in the perfect one. The result isn’t perfect, but it seems perfect. When you broadcast something live, there is no opportunity to seem perfect, and the whole world hears the real voice.

Last week’s attempt at doing live theater on television was a three-hour production of the last musical show, created by the classic artists of the genre: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. That is, of course, “The Sound of Music.”

Ratings-wise, it was a clever idea. More than 18 million viewers reportedly tuned in to see if the Von Trapp Family would actually get away from the Nazis this time. Considering the prevailing values of contemporary culture, it’s a bit surprising that they did escape, when it could have been an opportunity to have seen them all tortured and raped.

Still, the Internet gave us another reminder of just how ugly our culture has become. Looking the show up online, we find example after example of sneering, patronizing, demeaning drivel, claiming to be reviews. Although most of that negative nonsense came from the amateurs who have made themselves critics by benefit of the Internet, and most of the professional reviews I read gave balanced and reasonable analysis, it certainly can’t be said to have been a red letter day for my own profession.

This week, I’d like to discuss with you what I think is a reasonable analysis of the broadcast. It wasn’t perfect – what is? – but in general, I liked it.

A BIT OF

HISTORY

Most people know that the story of “The Sound of Music” is based upon a true story. There was a young woman named Maria, who was in training to become a nun, near Salzburg, Austria, in the 1930s. She was sent by her Mother Superior to care for the large family of children, belonging to a widowed sea captain in the Austrian navy named Georg Von Trapp. She did eventually marry the captain, they did flee from Austria to escape the take-over of their country by the Nazis in 1938, leaving nearly everything they owned behind, and they did manage to survive and support themselves by forming themselves and their children into a professional singing organization. All of that is true.

Eventually, Maria wrote a book about her life story, which sold very well. It made the family some income, and it encouraged her to write several more books about herself, her husband, his children, and the three additional children which she bore him. In 1954, a West German film company made a film of the family’s story.

It inspired a team of American theatrical artists to develop it into a play, which was soon converted into a musical show, with music and words by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The show debuted on Broadway in 1959, and ran there until 1963. Mary Martin won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Maria. At the time she was approximately 20 years older than the character she was playing. Theodore Bikel, later famous for playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” played her captain.

In 1967, the story was made into a film, which starred Julie Andrews as Maria, and Canadian classical actor Christopher Plummer as the captain. The film was made in Austria itself, enabling the gorgeous Alps to play themselves and enabling filming to take place inside the actual house where the Von Trapps lived before needing to flee their country, plus in other sites so stunningly beautiful that it would be easy to believe they were the fantasies of creative minds, rather than actual, natural locations.

The film was beautiful to see, and it featured the nearly pure white-toned singing voice of Ms. Andrews. The music of the role is beautiful, but it doesn’t suit the vibrant voice style of most opera singers. When New York City Opera did a version of the show, for example, they cast Debbie Boone in the principal role.

The film was changed somewhat from the stage version. The stage version was changed somewhat from real life. One of the less significant changes from real life was the names of all of the children. When the real Maria Von Trapp spoke at Chautauqua Institution a few years ago, shortly before her death in 1987, for example, I took part in her press conference.

One of the changes she pointed out was that there never was a child named Gretel. “The nickname Gretel is short for Margarete, so there couldn’t have been both a Margarete and a Gretel,” she said, with some disdain. “In fact, we didn’t have either one.” The real Von Trapp children were named Johanna, Martina, Maria, Hedwig, Agathe, Rupert and Werner. Maria and the captain eventually had Rosmarie, Eleonore and Johannes, together.

I asked her if she and her family had really escaped from the Nazis on foot, climbing through some of the most dangerous mountains in the world, at night. She answered, “No, of course not. We got into our Rolls Royce and drove to Switzerland.”

From neutral Switzerland, the family took a train to Mussolini’s Italy, which was allied to Hitler’s Germany, but was not nearly so completely under government control. Remember that in 1938, when the family escaped from Austria, World War II had not yet begun. From Italy, they took a ship to England, where they began to perform as “The Trapp Family Choir.” Most of their repertoire was very difficult and heavy classical works. They favored the music of Palestrina.

From England, they moved to the United States, where they changed their performing name to “The Trapp Family Singers,” eventually claiming that English audiences turned out for a choir, but it sounded too classical for U.S. audiences. The “Von” in their name, which in German denotes a member of the nobility, was quietly dropped.

Captain Von Trapp died only nine years after he married his second wife, in 1947, of lung cancer, leaving Maria a single mother to 10 children.

In the states, Maria applied for citizenship, although her husband refused to do so. The family’s finances went through several extremely rocky periods, although their musical tours were eventually so profitable that they were able to purchase a ski lodge, in the mountains near Stowe, Vermont, which the family still runs and which is open to the public. Johannes, or John Von Trapp, who has no part in the film nor the stage play, but who was born to Maria and the Captain, after their marriage, is presently the Chief Operating Officer of the lodge.

I remember asking Mrs. Von Trapp what she had enjoyed most about her brief visit to Chautauqua, and being surprised by her answer: “I like best, the wall which runs around the grounds,” she said.

I told her that many people among our readers dislike that wall, as it does create quite a bit of inconvenience, but she answered, “Yes, but it keeps out unwanted elements.”

At the time, I remember thinking, “Gee, Lady, you’re not Julie Andrews, are you?” It wasn’t until the summer before last that I realized that neither is Julie Andrews, Julie Andrews. Such is the way of life, I fear.

ON TELEVISION

The NBC production, from earlier this month, sought to reduce the amount of comparison to the 1967 film, which has become a beloved classic, beyond the ability of nearly any production to equal, by following the script of the stage show. I’ve read Internet review after review which claim that the songs were in the wrong order, and that some songs were omitted, while others were added in. In fact, the television version kept “Somewhere in My Youth or Childhood,” which was written especially for the film, but was not in the original stage version of the show. Otherwise, the television version followed the stage show reasonably accurately.

Most of the nasty reviews of the show centered on country singer Carrie Underwood, who played Maria. Most of them said some version of the claim that she sang well, but acted dully. There is some truth to that claim, although I have probably reviewed more than 20 stage versions of the show, and I would place Underwood in the top quarter of Marias, in acting ability alone. Higher yet in singing.

Criticisms such as that Maria was preparing to be a nun, and nuns used to cut off any long hair they had, as a kind of vanity, so Underwood’s Heidi-like braids were wrong, while Julie Andrews’ pixie cut was more appropriate, might be worth a mention, but not a lengthy diatribe.

Statements such as one woman’s, “I wished the hills were alive with hungry mountain lions. Why wasn’t she Julie Andrews? Is being Julie Andrews so much to ask for?” weren’t funny, nor appropriate.

The errors continue to grow, exponentially. Underwood is often compared unfavorably to Audra McDonald’s portrayal of the Mother Superior.

Again, there is an element of truth. Underwood’s country-trained voice doesn’t have the timbre nor the resonance of McDonald’s, but the Mother Superior’s music is much more classical in nature than Maria’s. She’s supposed to be a figure of veneration by Maria, so she’s given material which is more majestic. More than one of these amateur critics pointed out that McDonald “belted out” the song “Climb Every Mountain.” In fact, while McDonald can belt with the best of them, she resonated and sustained every note of her solo, like the classically-trained singer which she is, and she never “belted” one of them.

Even the actual descendants of the Von Trapps have weighed in negatively toward Underwood. On the other hand, Maria Von Trapp, before she died, declared the best portrayer of her life she had ever heard to be pop singer Petula Clark, who played the role of a dewy newlywed in London, while pushing 50.

Views of the actor who played Captain Von Trapp were less unanimously vicious than those of Underwood. Actor Stephen Moyer was really more relatable than Christopher Plummer’s autocratic Captain. This is supposed to be a man who loved his late wife so much he has died, emotionally, and he relates to his children distantly and coldly, because he has suffered so much from loving and losing. Moyer was less cold than Plummer, and whatever he felt personally, he didn’t give interviews, as Plummer did, in which he called the show nasty names such as “The Sound of Muzak.”

Neither Moyer nor Plummer is known for his singing, and those reviews which claimed Moyer held his own, in singing with Broadway veterans Laura Benanti and Christian Borle, who played the captain’s fiancee, Elsa Schrader and his friend Max Detweiler, respectively, must not have been listening very carefully. He sang OK. They sang very well. There is a difference. It’s worth a comment, but not a diatribe.

The worst thing about the amateur reviews of Moyer was the seemingly perpetual references to the fact that the man portrays a vampire in the television series “True Blood.” Now it’s true, when someone sees an actor play the same role, over and over, he tends to identify the person with the role. But we can’t expect actors to play one role and then retire. Chances are that we’re going to see them portraying a wide variety of people, and it’s our maturity that is tested, as long as their portrayals are reasonably performed. Moyer’s portrayal was fine. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was fine.

Other elements of the television show included the secondary romance of the Von Trapps’ eldest daughter, named Leisel in the script, instead of the actual Johanna. Although her stepmother would later relate that under no circumstances would she have been allowed to have a little puppy love relationship with the young man who delivered telegrams to the family home, that is exactly what is shown in both stage and screen versions.

Ariane Reinhardt, who is a college student, and so considerably more grown up than the “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” which her character embodies, was nonetheless girlish and slight. She danced and sang well, and was fine.

Actor Michael Campayno, as the telegraph boy, also sang and danced well, but he was working against his own talents. Campayno is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, and so is considerably more than seventeen, going on 18, as the song lyrics proclaim. In the film, the boy was played by a blond, boyish Daniel Truhitte, and his decision to identify with the Nazis who were taking over his country was representational of the duped adoption of aberrant philosophies such as Nazism by otherwise innocent young people everywhere.

Campayno is physically large and muscular, and looks manly, rather than boyish. His interest in a 16-year-old seemed far less innocent, and his adoption of a vile philosophy was harder to attribute to naivete.

To summarize, in my critical estimation, some of the criticisms aimed at the television version were reasonable, although the vehemence with which they were expressed was both cruel and pointless. Why on earth have we allowed it to be common to treat people so cruelly and unfairly, especially when there is no reason for it?

On the other hand, NBC took a bold gamble at reviving a form of programming which has been allowed to fade away, in recent decades. I enjoyed the evening I watched the show, and I would be happy to watch versions of other shows which they might offer us. Do you think there is any hope?