Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Sound of Music

I must admit that I came late to the Sound of Music party.  When I finally did see it, a scant two months ago, something really surprised me.  Curious? Hit the “Read More” button, baby.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music is one of the most successful films ever released. Adjusted for inflation, it is the second highest grossing film of all time.* And no wonder: the first half is delightful. Drapery-clad moppets sing and dance. A mismatched couple falls in love. The hills are literally alive with the sound of music -- and crawling with NUNS! But during the intermission, a hideous bait-and-switch occurs.

At first, I was captivated and entertained by the new Blu-ray disc of The Sound of Music. The story is sweet, Julie Andrews is cuter than a button, and the songs are all hits.  I cannot think of another Broadway musical with more songs that became classics: “Maria” (not the “Maria” from West Side Story; in SoM, irritated nuns sing about solving “a problem like Maria,” because this Maria is a big pain in the ass), “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,”  “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Me,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Edelweiss,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and the title song. Whew! Most musicals are lucky to emerge with one hit. Sound of Music has nine or ten in the first act alone... and therein lies the problem.

The Blu-ray disc maintains the original film’s intermission, making it clear that this film is composed of very different pieces: Act 1, which is like your favorite radio station’s All Hits Weekend, and Act 2, which is like the easy listening station your dad forced you to listen to in his car. The second half of this thing is awful: it is redundant. It is dull. It is redundant. And dull.

The hits disappear. Apparently, Rogers and Hammerstein reached their quota of great, catchy songs in the first half because the second half merely rehashes them, sometimes twice. Drag out your old theatrical program, and you will see the word “reprise” repeated more times than in that other Broadway hit, Reprise!

This reminded me of the time I caught the Broadway version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. How did they retool Weber and Rice’s simple children’s cantata into a Broadway vehicle for Donny Osmond? Simple. Repeat each song. Three times. Add Donny Osmond. Stir.

Richard Rogers wrote one original song for the film version: “Something Good” (which is not.)  By the time the movie version was in production, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein had died. (Probably post-war Nazi retaliation.)  Except for the one new song, all other music in the second half was done better in the first half, and the repetition quickly becomes tedious.

Do you know what else quickly becomes tedious? Lies. 

I do not expect movies based on true stories to adhere strictly to the facts. I think one of the funniest things in modern film history is the pre-credit boast in the Coen brothers’ Fargo that it was “based on a true story.” The way SoM plays fast and loose with the true story, and the structural defects of the second half, go hand in hand.

In the movie, the Nazis want Captain Von Trapp to resume his command, but fighting for the Third Reich. He does not want to. He takes his new wife and all his kids and merrily skips across the Alps to Switzerland, neutrality, and a Nazi-free future. Never mind that traversing the Alps from Salzburg to Switzerland is all but impossible on foot. The problem is that it never happened. In reality, the Captain was never an Austrian citizen; he was Italian by birth. How did Captain Von Trapp and company really escape the Nazis? They simply boarded a train to Italy. Less “Climb Every Mountain” and more “Porter, My Veal’s Gone Cold.”

It is the inherent drama of this made-up “running from Nazis” subplot that sinks the second half.  I feel safe in saying that someday, history will show that the Nazis were a serious threat. The first half of The Sound of Music is classic musical comedy. The second half adds Nazis, to create some kind of bastard hybrid “master-race musical thriller.” It is a shame because I see as much hit potential in the second half as in the first. I envision the Mother Abbess singing “I’m Hiding the Von Trapps, Shhhhh!” I envision Leisel singing “Heil Hitler, Heil Love.” And I can envision Captain Von Trapp belting out the film’s climactic salvo, “Stay Away From My Family Or I Will Get On a Train and Run Away Like a Little Girl.”

I am not alone here. When the film was first released in Austria, the studio anticipated big problems from Austrians who 1) had a continuing love affair with an earlier, Austrian Von Trapp biopic, which was by then a national treasure; and 2) usually did not like being portrayed on film as Nazi-sympathizing schmucks. The studio’s solution? The original Austrian release of SoM ends with Maria and the Captain’s wedding, eliminating the second half entirely. That is how the movie should have ended in the rest of the world as well.

* All recent claims of “highest grossing” and “biggest weekend in human history” are smoke and mirrors and marketing horseshit. You cannot judge a film’s box office success using mere dollar figures because movie tickets are so much more expensive now. No one could have or would have paid ten dollars for a movie ticket in 1939, yet adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the real box office champ of all time -- and it features NO robots in disguise.


  1. I should see it again, but, I do remember thinking it was too sappy. Somebody once told me, "The Sound of Music - that's the only time that I've ever actually cheered for the Nazi's in a film,"

    I wouldn't go that far, but the comment made me laugh.

  2. Yes, it is sap, but it is good, sweet sap. As I mentioned in the essay, I do not know what the &^%$#! the second half is.