Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sound of Music: The Sound of One Hand Clapping?

Two weeks ago, America’s TV sets were alive with the sound of music. Or something like that. At any rate, the Twittersphere was alive with the sound of big, fat Bronx cheers. Professional critics were not alone in proclaiming NBC’s live musical version of the beloved singing-nun story one of their LEAST favorite things.

As for me, I didn’t see it. True, the notion of a live stage musical playing itself out in my family-room transported me back to the lovely days of my TV-watching childhood  (Julie Andrews as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella! Mary Martin re-creating her stage performance as Peter Pan!) Still, I really wasn’t enticed by the prospect of watching American Idol winner Carrie Underwood try on Maria’s wimple. Frankly, an evening in the company of brown paper packages tied up with strings sounded like more fun to me.

Lord knows, it may be heresy (at least among several members of my immediate family), but I was never a devotee of the blockbuster 1965 film either. I know there are those who consider the casting of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer divinely inspired, and regard each of the Von Trapp tykes as a morsel of perfection. Yes, the Alpine scenery was undeniably glorious. I appreciated such touches as the casting of a leading lady who actually COULD sing (take that, Audrey Hepburn!) and the on-screen appearance of Marnie Nixon, who had famously dubbed the lilting soprano voices of Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Since Nixon wasn’t needed to stand in, vocally speaking, for the movie’s heroine, it was splendid that we finally got to see what she looked like, though a nun’s habit pretty much concealed her from view.

But even in those days, I was somewhat of a contrarian. And one reason I couldn’t fully adore the movie is that I treasured the memory of seeing The Sound of Music onstage. At L.A.’s old, barnlike Philharmonic Auditorium, I applauded Florence Henderson and the rest of the touring company. But  it was Mary Martin who starred on the cast album that my family played over and over. Those were the days when any middle-class family aspiring to culture boned up on Broadway’s latest hits. We owned the LPs of The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein output, and we knew every word of every song. No wonder I take Sound of Music so personally.

Much has been made of the death last week of Eleanor Parker, who played the aristocratic fiancée of Baron von Trapp in the 1965 film. (Some wags have insisted it was Carrie Underwood’s TV performance that killed her.) But fans of the movie rarely notice that two Rodgers and Hammerstein songs involving Parker’s character didn’t make it from stage to screen. Both “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It” are cynical ditties sung by the Baron’s sophisticated friends, who are all too ready to accept a Nazi takeover, so long as they can enjoy their own luxurious lives in peace. I loved these songs, because they added  to the stage musical a spoonful of vinegar that helped the treacle go down. In the movie version, though, the songs were cut.

Mary Martin was doubtless too old for the screen adaptation of Sound of Music and I can’t deny Julie Andrews’ fresh appeal. Israeli folksinger Theodore Bikel, who played the original Baron von Trapp, has had a curious movie career, playing men of widely varying nationalities. How many know he was Oscar-nominated for The Defiant Ones?


  1. I had never seen the movie until a year or two ago. My wife and her grandmother loved it and watched it every year when NBC (I think it was) aired it annually. We commemorated Grannie's birthday the next year after her passing (at 94!) by watching The Sound of Music in her honor. After all those years of watching the pan and scan TV airings, my wife was boggled at the very widescreen cinematography and new (to her) photographic compositions. I enjoyed the movie well enough - probably not going to be an annual viewing for me in any case. I do like knowing that future 70's TV Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond, Lost in Space's Angela Cartwright, and Robert Urich's widow Heather Menzies are among the children though.

    My wife watched the live production after I DVR-ed it for her. Her final verdict. "It felt like pieces were missing - but with the live production that made sense. Basically Underwood's acting was so bad I just started fast forwarding to the songs."

    I did not know the wonderful Theodore Bikel was Oscar nominated for The Defiant Ones - did you know he came very close to playing the James Bond villain Goldfinger in that film? (His audition footage is on the special edition DVD/Blu-Ray if you'd like to see it...)

  2. I like Theodore Bikel too, but he's a bit unlikely (though sympathetic) affecting a Southern accent in The Defiant Ones. Regarding the kids of Sound of Music, Angela Cartwright -- years before Lost in Space -- was of course well known from the Danny Thomas Show. And when I was teaching at USC, the youngest von Trapp, Kym Karath, was one of my students. She'd grown up a bit since, needless to say. It's nice learning that the kids had a warm relationship, and still remain in contact.