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Robert Wise's movie version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's The Sound of Music is probably the most famous movie musical ever made. The film opened at New York City's Rivoli Theater on March 2, 1965 to rapturous critical acclaim. Audiences were tremendously enthusiastic, and the film became one of the highest-grossing movies in history. The production originally cost $8.2 million; to date, the film has grossed nearly $200 million.
How did Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1959 musical become such a successful film? For what ended up being their last collaboration, the legendary team turned to Maria von Trapp's account of her family's odyssey in late-1930s Austria, The Trapp Family Singers. In 1924, Maria had entered the convent of Nonnenburg Abbey in the Austrian town of Salzburg (famous as Mozart's birthplace and for its annual music festival). Two years later, she was dispatched to the household of Baron Georg von Trapp to care for his invalid daughter. In 1927, the baron and the former postulant married. The Trapp family made their debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1936, but left Austria in 1938 after the Nazis occupied the country and annexed it. After traveling through Europe, the family emigrated to the United States, and Maria, Georg, and their 10 children settled in Vermont in 1942. Georg died in 1947, and Maria published her family memoir two years later.
Robert Wise's film wasn't the first version of the Trapp family's story to hit the silver screen. In 1956, a German-language version of the story, Die Trapp Familie, was released in Europe and met modest success both there and in South America. Paramount took note, and decided to option the story with an English-language film starring Audrey Hepburn in mind. Paramount never made the planned picture; Hepburn kept herself busy with War and Peace, Funny Face, and Love in the Afternoon.
The German film had, however, come to the attention of Broadway star Mary Martin, famous for creating the role of Nellie Forbush in another Rodgers and Hammerstein production, South Pacific (1949). Martin was enchanted by the film, and she and her husband tried to track down Maria von Trapp to discuss the possibility of turning her family's story into a musical. Maria had been on a mission to, ironically enough, the south Pacific, and could not be found. After eight months of searching, Martin found her in Innsbruck, Austria, recovering from malaria. Though wary of allowing her life to be made into a Broadway play, Maria recognized how much money her participation could generate - money that she could use in her religious and charitable work.
A book was generated from Maria's 1949 account and given to Martin. At this point, the idea was to use actual German songs sung by the Trapp family for the musical portions of the play. The producer also hoped that Rodgers and Hammerstein would contribute several songs as well. But the composer and lyricist thought that the work would be stronger if it were consistent. They would only participate if all of the songs were original.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway on November 16, 1959 with Mary Martin as Maria. It ran for 1,443 performances, an overwhelming critical and popular success.
Any success on Broadway during the era of the great movie musicals was bound to catch Hollywood's attention. Paramount had allowed their option to lapse, so 20th Century Fox stepped in, offering $1.2 million for the rights to The Sound of Music. The studio went through several choices for Maria. After deliberation, Doris Day, the original choice, was ruled out, as was Mary Martin. The part finally was offered to Julie Andrews, who had starred on Broadway in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady and Camelot and had just finished filming her first feature, Mary Poppins, for Disney.
Christopher Plummer originally refused the part of Baron von Trapp because he didn't think it was serious enough. He also supposedly had his doubts when he discovered his voice would be dubbed for the musical numbers, but Richard Zanuck, who was then the head of 20th Century Fox, allowed Plummer to decide about dubbing after viewing the rough cut of the film. Singer Bill Lee provided Baron von Trapp's singing voice on the final soundtrack.
For the movie version of the musical, the roles of the baroness (played by Eleanor Parker in the film) and Max (played by Richard Haydn) were reduced, and three songs - "No Way to Stop It," "An Ordinary Couple," and "How Can Love Survive" - were cut. Richard Rodgers composed two new songs for the filmed version of his musical. Maria and the baron's "Something Good" replaced "An Ordinary Couple," and Maria's "I Have Confidence" was added to the film's opening scene in Nonnenburg Abbey.
Filming began on April 23, 1964 on location in Austria. More than half of the movie was shot there, with filming lasting 11 weeks - three more than originally scheduled - because of delays wrought by rain. Locations included the Salzkammergut valley for the grand outdoor scenes famous from the film's opening, the Felsenreitschule (Stone Riding School) for the scene at the music festival, and the actual Nonnenburg Abbey. The production strove for authenticity - for example, many of the performances at the annual Salzburg Festival continue to take place in the Felsenreitschule. Interior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles that summer, with production wrapping on August 20, 1964.
The Sound of Music boasts some of the most famous numbers in musical history. Rodgers showed the breadth and versatility of his art with this score. The music ranges from the religious solemnity of the Psalm, Hymn, and Alleluia sung by the nuns' chorus to the delights of numbers like "Do-Re-Mi" and "My Favorite Things." The abbess' "Climb Every Mountain" never fails to rouse, and there are few tunes more moving than the baron's "Edelweiss." The work is, of all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations, the closest to Viennese operetta with its succession of numbers covering a wide emotional and musical range, an appropriate similarity considering its setting, if not its subject.
The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture and Best Director for Wise. In the 42 years since its release, The Sound of Music has come to symbolize everything that was great about the Hollywood musical while delighting audiences around the world.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Artistic Administrator.