Sing-Along Sound of Music

by Glenn on September 20, 2018

A Sing-Along Sound of Music began last weekend and will continue the next two weekends at Cinema 21, an independent movie theatre in downtown Portland.

This was officially the third Sing-Along SOM we’ve attended, including a previous showing at Cinema 21 several years ago and one we hosted at our church some years before that. Coupled with a couple dozen unsung viewings over the years, I’m fairly certain I’ve watched The Sound of Music more than any other film. While it’s no longer an annual event for me, I don’t seem to go more than a couple of years without taking it in. What surprises me every time I watch it is how affecting the experience is even knowing it as well as I do. Some of this might come from some personal nostalgia as my earliest memories of The Sound of Music coincide with my own earliest memories—I grew up watching it with my mom every year on network television over the Christmas holidays. But I think a lot of the feeling comes from the film itself.

The Sound of Music takes you back to a time of relative cultural and national innocence. We watch it knowing the storm that’s coming—the six million Jews murdered (along with other “undesirables,” including homosexuals, Roma, and handicapped persons) and the tens of millions of soldiers and civilians killed throughout Europe. It’s impossible to tell a story about each and every family that will experience loss because of the Nazis during those awful years. So the film tells just one, albeit a fictionalized account. The Von Trapp family has just found its way back from or through the loss of a wife and mother. But no sooner have the nun-turned-governess Maria and the Captain and his children answered each others’ deep needs that they now decide they must escape the coming fire. There’s no suggestion that the family completely understands that a cataclysmic destruction will accompany Nazism, but they know they have to leave. Prescience comes with the price of starting over.

I suppose in a way The Sound of Music has been a refuge of sorts against the passing of time. We change, but here’s something that is unchanging. As we watched and sang along this time, though, at the back of my mind was the fact that the actor who played Liesl, Charmian Carr, died just two years ago. (I’ve since learned that another actor, Heather Menzies-Urich, who played Louisa, has also died.) Film has a way of freezing moments. Things get real when you see the passage of time, though, for example when the whole “family” came together for a one-time event on the Oprah Winfrey Show for the film’s 45th anniversary.

A decade or more ago I read Carr’s book, Forever Liesl, about her experience with The Sound of Music. As I recall, she dealt with the reality that the fans who loved her on screen were in love with someone who never existed (she is not Liesl), played by a person who was no longer sixteen and who, actually, was 21 when she made the film. The film took just nine months of her life—three months in Hollywood rehearsing and recording and six months in Austria filming—but it became the thing for which she was known throughout her life. She wrote about how on the promotional tour she watched the opening of the film many times, but never actually watched the film in its entirety in the theatre. Meanwhile, fans wrote to her over the years to tell her how many times they had watched the film and the way it had touched their lives. I don’t know why the trivia she wrote about was interesting to me, but it was. I have too many books in the on-deck circle to go back and read this one again, but I recall (I hope accurately) the following:

• Because Carr was 21, she was housed separately from the other “children” and stayed in the same hotel as Christopher Plummer, who could be found each night at in the hotel bar drinking and playing piano. (According to Plummer in the Oprah interview, he partied so much during the filming that his costume had to be let out.)

• Carr doesn’t suggest there was any sort of romantic involvement between she and Plummer, but reports having a major crush on him at the time.

• Plummer had a bit of an attitude about the whole thing. He was concerned that it would be too sentimental (in the Oprah Winfrey special he talks about how he found the Captain to be barely human). He referred to it as “the sound of mucus.” But part of his attitude may have come from the fact that he was overdubbed by another singer, Bill Lee. The overdubbing was done well, though, and perhaps he thinks better of it now as this interview seems to suggest. Though it’s not Plummer we hear singing, I’ve always imagined that’s how he sounds.

• Plummer was also a bit grumpy about having to carry Gretl (played by Kym Karath) over the hills at the end of the film. He thought she was too heavy. So there is a body double there at the end.

• Another story about Gretl. She couldn’t swim so that when Maria and the children fall out of the boat, Julie Andrews was supposed to grab her. Things went according to plan for the first take. But on the second take, Andrews went the wrong direction out of the boat and had to scramble to get Gretl who had sucked down quite a bit of water and nearly drowned.

• Nicholas Hammond, who played Kurt, grew six inches or so over the course of the film, so they had to get creative with placing the children so he wouldn’t tower over Carr.

• Carr sprained her ankle just before the gazebo scene, so she had to have her ankle wrapped in a bandage, which was visible in the movie. It’s been corrected digitally in later editions. (In this tribute following her death, Carr talks about an injection so she wouldn’t feel pain.)

• The high note sung by Friedrich in “So Long, Farewell” was actually recorded by Carr’s sister.

Carr is not a gossip. You don’t get dirt from this book. Carr has been something of a lifelong ambassador for the film and the tone of the book matches the film. The one note of negativity in the book is some feeling of resentment about representing the film over the years, but not really being compensated for that work. The “children” were brought together again and again for anniversaries but, as I recall, it was often on their own dime and because of their good nature. They had already been paid for their work on the film, meanwhile Robert Wise, the director, continued to generate profits and the continuing promotional efforts of the children went largely unsupported.

The main problem with The Sound of Music is the central conceit of all musicals, the fact that everyone seems to treat the presence of an unseen orchestra in whatever setting the characters find themselves as completely normal. Just open your mouth to sing and know that an orchestra is ready to back you up.

There are other problems. For one, Why do Austrians have British accents? It makes me wonder how popular this film is outside the Anglo-American world. My understanding is that this film isn’t terribly popular in Austria, that the “Do-Re-Mi” montage is annoying to Salzburg natives because there is no sense of continuity in real life for the progression of places as they are shown on screen. For those of us who don’t know Salzburg, it all looks delightful. For the natives, I think there are some bracing juxtapositions.

I’m sure someone somewhere is irritated by cultural appropriations in the film, that Hollywood people are using Viennese culture for profit. I’m okay with it. One of the most enjoyable moments for me in the scene where one of the acts for the Salzburg Folk Festival is rehearsing in the background while the Nazis inquire about the whereabouts of Captain Von Trapp and Maria. I love the beautiful ländler:

There’s an elegance to this music that is delightful. Here’s one couple that adopted the Captain and Maria’s first dance as their first dance at their wedding:

As a person of faith, my relationship with The Sound of Music is complicated. On the one hand, here is a film where the Christian characters (in this case of the Catholic variety) are normal people. They aren’t murderers or monsters as they always seem to be in episodes of, say, Law and Order. Faith, as expressed by the nuns, especially Mother Superior, is a natural, unaffected expression and keeps the film from coming across as preachy. Yet it’s not a “Christian” film. The “me” in “I have confidence in me” is exactly the wrong place where saving trust is to be placed. And the basic idea of “Something Good” makes life a bit more transactional than I think is accurate (considering Job, for example).

My enduring enjoyment of the musical comes from the fact that the music lasts. By this I mean two things. First, the songs are still great 50+ years later. And, second, many days after the Sing-Along event, the songs are still in my head. Part of this I’m sure is a lifetime’s exposure to the music. But it occurs to me how eminently singable these songs are. It’s hard not to sing, hum, whistle these tunes. I note this because I attended church services the next morning and none of those tunes are still in my head. If there are three aspects to music—melody, harmony, and rhythm—The Sound of Music privileges the melody. Richard Rodgers wrote great tunes that stay with you without being annoying (at least in my case) in an “It’s a Small World” sort of way.

It seems to me that in the Church one thing that’s going on today is that we now privilege rhythm over melody and harmony. Contemporary songs don’t stay with you, a lot of which has to do with how much syncopated the melodies are. Where’s the contemporary equivalent of “Edelweiss,” where when the person on stage invites you to join him in singing, you want to and can? That’s a rant for another day.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to have these tunes in my head again.