- - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SOUND OF MUSIC STORY

By Tom Santopietro

St. Martin’s Press, $28.99, 324 pages, illustrated

 

For those of us who thrilled to the movie made of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last Broadway collaboration, “The Sound of Music,” it is hard to believe that a half-century has passed since it claimed its unique place in American film. Note my absolutely deliberate lack of a qualifying adjective, for this was not just a wonderful musical film, it was one of those rare movies in a category of its own. For many people, it was in a class of one, over and above all other favorites, quite apart from that highly personal list every devoted moviegoer has in their head and heart. Few films ever achieve such a feat: “Gone With the Wind,” “All About Eve,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” but when you came out of the movie theater with Julie Andrews’ inimitable voice ringing in your ears and the Alpine scenery dwarfing anything actually before your eyes, you were quite simply transported to another sphere. And you couldn’t wait to see it again and again and again.

This comprehensive, enthusiastic book would, I suppose, serve to entice or whet the appetite of those unfortunate few on our planet with no exposure to this phenomenon — and this is one of those rare movies which actually deserve the appellation — but it is really for those who already love it. It is full of details that will excite or appall or engender gratitude. How it was very nearly directed by perhaps the greatest practitioner of his craft, William Wyler: He hated the stage play, but was still interested in putting his stamp on the film. (But who can regret the choice of Robert Wise given his ability to perform the unique feat of producing a Rodgers and Hammerstein movie indubitably superior to its Broadway antecedent?) How the catastrophic “Cleopatra” could have prevented 20th Century Fox from even being able to make the movie at all. (It’s amazing how lavish it looked given the budget restraints Mr. Santopietro tells us were so draconian.) That Noel Coward was seriously considered for the part of the impresario Max Detweiler — and that Doris Day might well have played the lead.

Of course, there were those who carped back in 1965, just as they had sneered at the Broadway version. Words such as saccharine were bandied about. Judith Crist of the “The Today Show” called the children loathsome, which “she laughingly noted, garnered her ‘hate mail from all over the world!’” But even jaded Kenneth Tynan, who had dubbed the stage version “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Great Leap Backward,” although predictably “mostly bored,” professed himself “intermittently, unexpectedly touched” by the movie, while Julie Andrews’ “soaring voice and thrice-scrubbed innocence make me, even in guarded moments, catch my breath.” And in truth, even he would have had to be in an even more than usually sour mood not to be enchanted.

For it had everything you want in a movie musical. Great songs, rendered in everything from what this book rightly calls its heroine’s incandescence to being tailored just right to the other singers by whatever means necessary. Magnificent scenery breathtakingly filmed. A genuine love story, not to mention adjustments, revelations and bits of heartbreak. It stoutly affirms virtue and old-fashioned patriotism and has in the Nazis villains everyone can hate.

I happened to visit Salzburg in the summer of 1965, just after the movie opened and more than a year after it had been filmed there, and I can attest to the distinct imprint it had left on the place. It had been Mozart’s town for nearly two centuries, but suddenly he had to share it. No wonder the haunting “Edelweiss” (the last song that incomparable team wrote) with its refrain “Bless my homeland forever,” Mr. Santopietro tells us, “so effectively [came] to symbolize Austria in the public’s eye that when the president of Austria visited the Reagan White House, the director of protocol mistakenly thought that the song was the Austrian national anthem and instructed the Marine Band to play the song.” Yet, as he also notes, its message proved universal to audience members whatever their nationality. When he writes, “An expression of family love and national pride, the song’s moving evocation of the eternal verities grew out of the dying Hammerstein’s most deeply held emotions,” we get a real sense of the deep wellsprings which fed the lyrics.

In London that same summer, notwithstanding the movie playing to full houses, the Broadway “Sound of Music” was in its fifth year of a run in a cavernous West End theater. I couldn’t resist seeing how they stacked up against one another and found myself doubly pleased. The lengthy stage version affirmed the beauty of tune and lyric, some of them omitted from the film, even without such stellar albeit excellent singers. And the absence of that heart-stopping scenery and sweep made me appreciate anew in my mind’s eye the celluloid images I couldn’t wait to revisit.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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