Imagine if the Sound of Music had been written by the genius whippersnappers behind Cabaret, John Kander and Fred Ebb, instead of by the slabs of Broadway cheddar that are Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ll. RR and OH ll had already written Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific and Oklahoma! Of course, they had genius, too. They were big cheeses, indeed. Mr Kander and Mr Ebb went on to write Chicago, and many other musicals. Cabaret, not only the best musical ever, maybe the best film, too, was written just six years after TSoM and yet they are as different as dog bites and whiskers on kittens. Both about the rise of the Nazis, yet one sentimental and pastel-coloured, the other unflinching, horrified by Berlin in the 30s. I’m not suggesting for a second that Rodgers and Hammerstein are sympathetic to the Nazis, but they don’t give them the real, nasty menace that they have in Cabaret. Fear is too pretty in TSoM.
The Baroness, who has her eye on Captain vonTrapp, is more of a baddie than the entire Austrian wing of the Nazi Party. She has plans to send his children to boarding school after she marries him. The Captain has other problems. Ramrod-backed, he keeps his emotions buried deep since the death of his first wife. Their seven children aren’t allowed to play. Or sing. Or wear clothes made from curtains. Will the feisty new governess, Maria, find a way to change all this? Will she find a way into their hearts?
Imagine if Rolf, the oldest daughter’s Hitler Youth boyfriend, had sung Tomorrow Belongs to Me instead of 16 Going on 17. Imagine if the Captain had sung Two Ladies to Maria and the Baroness instead of Edelweiss. Imagine if Bob Fosse had directed the Salzburg Music Festival in the style of the Kit Kat Club. Imagine if Joel Grey had played the Baroness’s gay bff and the nuns had been played by ze laydeez ov ze orrrrkestra. Christopher Plummer is perfect as the stern Captain: he’s the best actor in the film. Imagine if Liza Minnelli had played Maria instead of Julie Andrews. Stop me now. Consider my mind well and truly blown. If any of that had happened TSoM would have been infinitely better than it is and Cabaret wouldn’t have been so necessary. The world may have become a very different place. I’ll write about Cabaret at another time, but, be forewarned, I have a lot to say about it.
I saw The Sound of Music when it first came out. I was six or seven. We sat in the first row of the balcony and I was enchanted. In those days if we wanted to see a film again we had to wait until it was shown on tv three years later. Or, as in the case of TSoM, Christmas Day, 1978, thirteen years later. If I could have watched it in the way I’d have liked I would have been like one of those children who wears a pink princess outfit and watches Frozen two thousand times. I’d have been glued to the tv in a sparkly wimple. I think I even flirted, at seven, with the idea of becoming a nun. I grew out of that idea as I grew out of the Sound of Music. Some of the songs are good, though. The one I love is the Lonely Goatherd. I sing it to myself, often. I love the yodel-y way it’s sung. Julie Andrews’ voice is astonishing, really. And I love the staging. I desperately wanted a puppet theatre like that when I was seven and I wouldn’t mind one now, either. The thing I love best is the way the backdrop thumps down perfectly in time with the song. It’s glorious as it oom-pahs along. It’s joyous. I think all I have to do is tell you that once in a town was a lonely goatherd and you’ll be singing it, too. And that’s why I love The Lonely Goatherd.
My friend Amanda prompted this Sound of Music frenzy. She tweeted the other day how she was singing the entire score of TSoM in the shower. Amanda contacted me last year on Twitter (my handle is @mr_s_wilder). We’d been at school together. My memory of her was hazy. I think when I was sixteen I snogged her best friend, but it may have been Amanda I locked lips with. I remember whichever one it was wore a perfume that smelled exactly like strawberries. Ever since, whenever I’ve been in smelling distance of strawberries I’ve thought about either Amanda or her best friend. In those days, just like Captain vonTrapp, I masked my true feelings by doing the opposite of what I really wanted to do. Of course, it’s all worked out and I’m very comfortable in my gay skin now, but things were different when I was a teen. I’ve met Amanda several times recently. We’ve had tea and visited Postman’s Park, we’ve been to an exhibition. I hope she’s becoming a good friend. I asked Amanda why she loves TSoM. These are her reasons:
• It is unswervingly romantic and sentimental.
• The toons and lyrics are terrific and uncomplicated = very singable. It’s not Sondheim (thank God)
• At 6 years old I desperately wanted to be Liesl and couldn’t wait to be 16 going on 17 and experience swooning love (but not with someone from the Hitler Youth Movement).
• The Captain’s icy heart and emotional complexities melt with love and kindness.
• At 6 years old I kind of also wanted to be the Baroness because she was glamorous and pithy (although I didn’t know the word ‘pithy‘)
• I know the points where I’m going to cry and relish them: Climb Ev’ry Mountain; Edelweiss; when we learn that the nuns have sabotaged the Nazis’ cars; the escape over the Alps.
• BUT the best thing of all is that long opening aerial shot of the Alps, with the music swelling that just goes on and on before Julie comes running over the hills. Ohhhhhh. I hold my breath until I almost faint with pleasure.
I also find myself in tears when it’s time for Climb Ev’ry Mountain and Edelweiss. Tears of boredom. And I adore most of the Sondheim canon. Maybe this is the difference between men and women. And the film is an hour too long, I think. But it’s hard to argue with her about that swoony tracking shot. And that’s why Amanda loves The Sound of Music.