We all know how The Sound of Music opens, right? It starts with a helicopter shot of Julie Andrew on an Austrian mountaintop, spinning ecstatically in place as she carols, “The hills are alive . . .” Yes, that’s the oh-so-familiar movie version, one of the all-time box-office champions. But The Sound of Music was first a hit Broadway show, starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. Last night I saw a Broadway-bound revival, which brought back memories of years gone by, when – at a huge barn-like auditorium called the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall – I first encountered The Sound of Music, with Florence Henderson at the head of a touring production.
The stage version of The Sound of Music, based on the story of Maria von Trapp and her musical brood, starts not with a helicopter shot but with a chorus of nuns singing a joyful “Alleluia.” (My father, who did not have much use for nuns, once wondered at this point whether he’d stumbled into the wrong show.) Needless to say, some of movie’s greatest charms are missing from the stage version. On stage, mountains have to be portrayed by painted backdrops, and you can’t show that gaggle of little von Trapps biking down country lanes, and rowing on country lakes. So the joy in nature felt by the leading characters must be accepted . . . yes! . . . on faith.
Still, I was fond of the stage version because it seemed franker about the other side of the mountain, the ongoing Nazi threat that balances the sweetness and light at the show’s core. The movie does retain both Captain von Trapp’s wealthy, worldly fiancée and his impresario friend who makes a virtue of expedience. But in the movie adaptation, their two songs have been removed. “How Can Love Survive?” is a cynical ode to romance among the very rich. “There’s No Way to Stop It” is a comic ditty dedicated to the wisdom of celebrating the men in charge, whomever they might be, in order to save one’s own skin. This second song makes perfect sense in a tale about leaving one’s homeland rather than capitulating to the dictates of the Nazi Anschluss. Beneath the song’s apparent light-heartedness, it’s a bold statement, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again.
This new production, which began in L.A., does right by the political forces that are gathering. A particularly vivid touch involves the climactic musical competition in which the Trapp Family Singers appear. When they take the stage in their quaint dirndls and lederhosen, the backdrop behind them is a huge set of red banners flaunting the Nazi swastika, which was more than enough to send shivers down my spine. Casting works well too. Director Jack O’Brien points out in a program note that when Mary Martin starred as Maria on stage, she was 47 years old. Julie Andrews, cast in the movie after becoming America’s sweetheart in Mary Poppins, was nearly 30. The new Maria is (heaven help us!) a college sophomore in her first big role. Kerstin Anderson, just 21, is tall and gangly, with a lovely voice and lots of infectious spunk. She’s believable as a postulant in an abbey, and we can totally buy her falling for Captain von Trapp (Ben Davis), who’s played a bit younger than usual and looks something like a bearded Ryan Gosling. The moppets (envied, I’m sure, by every kid in the audience) are well differentiated. And Ashley Brown, as the Mother Abbess, raises the rafters with “Climb Every Mountain.” The Sound of Music sounds very good indeed.