The Movie Musical Project is a roughly bi-weekly essay series exploring the best and worst of movie musical filmmaking, with an eye to deriving principles from them that can be applied to a new wave of movie musicals. Join us. We brought wine.
The Sound of Music marked the end of an era both on stage and screen, albeit in markedly different ways. Famously, it was the last show that the legendary Oscar Hammerstein II wrote before his death, but more than that it was a callback to and a doubling-down on the style he made famous. Hammerstein had already written more dramatically complex shows and more stridently political shows by that point, as well as far more sophisticated lyrics, but The Sound of Music represents perhaps the simplest but also the most archetypal version of his tendencies as a writer – unabashedly sentimental, overtly socially-minded, and achingly human. Some have framed it as an artistic step back, but that would only be accurate in the sense that it served as something akin to a Greatest Hits record for Hammerstein’s signature aesthetic.
The movie adaptation, for its part, was the last of the major Hollywood Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations to be produced. By that point, its style could be justifiably seen as passe – after all, it had been four years since West Side Story had given the movie musical a (for its time) highly contemporary shot in the arm, and within seven years the most successful and acclaimed movie musical of the year would be Fosse’s Cabaret, a production that would owe a huge historical debt to Hammerstein’s oeuvre while being seemingly as stylistically distinct from it as possible. 1965 might have been the last year that The Sound of Music could have been as big a hit as it was on the big screen.
But, of course, characterizing the film adaptation of The Sound of Music as a throwback would be highly disingenuous – in fact, it’s probably the starkest example in the movie musical canon of the precise transition point between the mass-appealing, vintage style of movie musical from years past and the more boutique, counter-cultural direction the medium would shortly be moving toward. The show changed enormously in adaptation, and the man behind that was Ernest Lehman.
Lehman was, by that point, a veteran of movie musical screenwriting. He had already won Oscars for adapting West Side Story and The King and I to film, making him far and away the first choice for this project. Unlike with those adaptations, however, Lehman immediately set about making substantial changes to the The Sound of Music, cutting two songs entirely and repositioning several others. After some tomfoolery with production schedules, director Robert Wise (with whom Lehman had already worked on West Side Story) was secured to helm the feature and worked with Lehman on further drafts of the script with roughly the same goal – to leaven the sentimentality of the stage show with the psychological depth and realism that was becoming more standard in a post-West Side Story landscape.
Given that in many cases a move toward realism in movie musicals has meant a move toward purely diegetic numbers (Cabaret being the prime but hardly lone example), one might expect that Lehman and Wise’s adaptation would take a similar route. However, the two songs added specifically for the film (written by Richard Rodgers sans the late Hammerstein) are both non-diegetic musical numbers of the kind that R&H shows had always used, so they clearly did not see the use of this type of number as inconsistent with their self-imposed remit for a more nuanced and grounded take on the story. In fact, it became an essential part of their approach.
Fundamentally, the story of The Sound of Music is a Beauty and the Beast riff in which golden-hearted novice Maria teaches the stern Captain Von Trapp how to be a father again after the death of his wife by symbolically bringing music back into his life and that of his children. Notably, Maria’s world at the beginning is full of non-diegetic song. In fact, every song which she sings or in which she is mentioned prior to her arrival at the villa is non-diegetic. Captain Von Trapp, however, does not sing, nor do any of his children (except, of course, for rebellious teenage Liesl in her secret rendezvous with Rolf, but we will come back to that).
It is up to Maria to bring music back to the house, and the way in which she does so is almost entirely diegetic. “My Favorite Things” is framed as a song she sings to comfort the children, “Do Re Mi” is explicitly a song teaching them how to sing as a family, and “The Lonely Goatherd” is an in-universe performance, as is the childrens’ rendition of the title number. It is this reprise of the title number that marks the major turning point in the arc, where the Captain joins in to everyone’s surprise. This is followed by a solo rendition of “Edelweiss” by the Captain, accompanying himself on guitar.
Christopher Plummer, for his part, hated his singing in the movie (he would later refer to it as “The Sound of Mucus” for this reason), but dramatically it works perfectly – this is a man who has nearly forgotten how to sing and is still knocking the rust off the gears, so to speak. I would argue, in fact, that his songs are all the more touching and human for his slightly shaky vocals.
These are all diegetic numbers, however; the shape of the arc suggests that the Captain must sing a non-diegetic song by the end of the show, and the movie not only obliges but improves on the stage show in this regard. By cutting the song “No Way To Stop It” in the second half of the show, Lehman ensures that the first time the Captain gets a fully non-diegetic song is his love duet with Maria.
(Incidentally, the duet in question, “Something Good” is the second of the new songs added, replacing “An Ordinary Couple” from the stage show. While the former is a far better stand-alone song, the latter is more consistent with the themes of the story, painting a stark picture of Rodgers the songwriter and Hammerstein the dramatist.)
This effectively completes the Captain’s arc, and he and Maria get married in a ceremony scene that drags exactly as much as it did onstage. Then, after this ending, there follows a further half hour depicting the family’s escape from Nazi occupation.
To be fair, this was always the big structural problem with the show – the most gripping part of the story has to play as a sort of coda to the main story after the main characters’ arcs have pretty much fully resolved – but the stage show and the movie try to deal with this in starkly different ways.
The stage show attempts to pepper in references to the rising Nazi menace through the preceding portions of the story in order to create a sense of constant tension just offstage (one could almost see it as a proto-Cabaret of sorts in this regard) so that when that element of the story finally comes to the fore, it will feel like the last loose thread coming back around rather than an entirely new element.
Lehman correctly diagnosed that this approach did not entirely work, but instead of attempting to refine it further he attempted something like an opposite approach. Nazism is certainly alluded to in the early stretches of Lehman’s script, but the touch is very light and relies heavily on the audience bringing a decent layman’s knowledge of the historical context to the table.
Still, everything is going well for Maria and the Captain and you could almost forget about the background radiation when suddenly the movie cuts to a town square bedecked in swastikas and marching stormtroopers.
I should point out that this approach does not entirely work either. It is easy to both discern and respect what Lehman was going for – trying to convey the shock of the Anschluss by baking the shock into the structure of the story itself – but it nonetheless makes this final stretch of the film feel like, at best, an abrupt change of genre.
At the very least the movie commits to this change, adding an initial escape attempt that uses the freedom granted by cinema to more fully dramatize the ticking clock element that gives the diegetic music festival concert its tension, and also fleshing out the family’s escape following the concert. If the stage version’s approach bears some resemblance to Cabaret, this one may be slightly closer to Into the Woods.
Of course, the handling of this suspense element and the handling of Nazism more generally in each version is bound inexorably to their handling of one character: Rolfe.
The stage show is more explicit with Rolfe’s fall from grace, trying to make the audience like him at first only to watch him descend further and further into the fascist fold. He does get one last sympathetic moment, however, when he decides to momentarily cover for the family’s escape out of affection for Liesl.
In contrast, the movie is almost hilariously done with Rolfe’s bullshit right from the beginning. In his first appearance, he asks after the family’s well being by asking if everything is under control, setting a baseline that makes clear how creepy his portions of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” have frankly always been. This interpretation of Rolfe takes his line about Liesl needing “someone older and wiser/telling you what to do” as its Rosetta Stone, playing up his immature obsession with control and how that might predispose him to a movement like fascism. Where the stage show optimistically (and, if we’re being candid, rather naively) portrayed Rolfe as a brash but basically decent teenage boy who fell in with the wrong crowd but might be redeemed if only he thinks the right girl is hot, the movie paints a portrait of a boy who has already enthusiastically bought into the toxically masculine ethos and hierarchy that fascism has traditionally both fetishized and exploited.
And, of course, the movie very pointedly subverts the stage show’s final note of sympathy for Rolfe by having the Captain try to talk him down and tell him that he’s still a boy and has a chance to leave if he chooses, only for Rolfe to shout for his fellow soldiers, forcing the Captain to flee. This reads not just as a change to the character, but as a direct rebuke to the stage show’s jejune handling of the same moment, rejecting the idea that interpersonal niceness outweighs broader complicity in oppression. In this regard the movie has aged far better than one might have expected, particularly in light of the last decade or so.
Of course, the challenge for any film attempting to position itself in opposition to fascism is to fight what fascism actually is rather than the image it works very hard to present. In this regard The Sound of Music is a somewhat mixed success, though it is easy to understand its difficulties. For the story to be thematically coherent, the Captain’s flaws at the beginning of his arc have to be tied into the Nazi menace somehow; however, in order the the Captain to remain sympathetic, it is important that he not even flirt with fascism himself, instead remaining staunchly anti-fascist throughout. How does one address this contradiction?
The stopgap measure used by both the stage and screen version is to draw an implicit parallel between the Captain’s cold regimentation of his household with the mechanistic oppression of Nazism, thus allowing him to move away from a loosely fascist-associated ethos without ever needing to have seriously considered collaboration with fascism itself.
The problem is that the notion of fascist regimentation is itself a piece of fascist propaganda. The public displays of precisely-drilled marching and sharp squares of soldiers were always a big show to distract onlookers both foreign and domestic from how clumsy and auto-cannibalistic the movement actually was. Even the infamous saying,”at least the trains run on time,” in reference to Italy under fascist rule was the product of deliberate manipulation by Mussolini’s regime – they did indeed improve the rail service, but only by diverting funds from basically every government function except the war machine, not caring about funding any public services except the one that they knew they could use as a proto-memetic propaganda line.
Like a lot of media, The Sound of Music takes at least some of this at face value, equating fascism in large part with the sort of strict regimentation that mid-century fascists wished to project, the better to contrast it with the pastoral freedom of the mountains and of music. The problems with this attempted dichotomy are exacerbated by the fact that Nazi propaganda also made heavy use of pastoralism, though in that case it was to contrast it with the supposed degenerate metropolitanism of modernity.
Additionally, given fascism’s ideological continuity with patriotism, it is more than a little weak to have the Captain’s argument against the occupation be based primarily in patriotism itself. Happily, the subtext helps to allay this last issue considerably, since (particularly in the movie) it is relatively easy to discern an arc in the Captain’s understanding of resistance, moving from broad Austrian patriotism based in prior military service to one that represents his concern for the future of his family and the sort of world his children will have to live in.
On this note, a big part of the reason that “Edelweiss” works as a song of resistance in the story despite it being an ersatz national anthem is its humility; comparing pre-annexation Austria to a fragile bloom that – like democracy – must be protected and preserved in the face of rising palingenetic ultranationalism is a disarmingly quiet approach that provides an effective contrast against the chest-beating of German nationalism at the time. When the audience at the music festival joins in for the song’s final rendition to the chagrin of the Nazis in attendance, the threat to fascist control is not so much one of power as of endurance, the idea that no matter how much political authority they wield over the territory, a substantial portion of its people will always be nursing another set of values in their hearts.
The handling of music regarding fascism also works more broadly. The hack version of this story would have drawn a very sharp musical line between the protagonists and their fascist nemeses, positing “the Nazis don’t have music in their hearts” as an argument against them. Of course, the Nazis absolutely did have music and art, they were just bad and painfully literal-minded. While Rolfe is the only Nazi who sings in the story (as mentioned, the subtext of his lyrics is pretty damning), an excellent note of nuance in the movie is when, rather than try to suppress the music festival near the end of the story, the Nazi occupiers insist on it going forward as planned, their stated logic being that it will reinforce an idea of cultural continuity following the Anschluss. Not only is this a politically interesting beat, it also effectively lampshades the patriotism issue mentioned above by suggesting that the Nazis, for their part, decidedly see an ideological continuity between Austrian cultural pride and their own.
The theme of music-as-freedom-as-life, of course, would not work anywhere near as effectively on an aesthetic level if not for director Robert Wise’s epic framings. Wise obviously learned a great deal from his time working on West Side with Jerome Robbins (before Robbins was removed from the production for, by all accounts, being extremely Jerome Robbins about everything) and carried over the bag of tricks from that film.
Characters advancing dramatically on the camera is still Wise’s signature move, and his frames take advantage of the gorgeous mountainous countryside in the same way that his earlier ones exploited the sharp vertical lines of New York CIty architecture. In “I Have Confidence,” Wise reflects Maria’s variable levels of conviction by alternating between shots in which she towers confidently in the frame and ones in which she is dwarfed by her surroundings (settling ultimately on the latter as she arrives at the villa).
Even more than with West Side, though, Wise is firmly in his element here. The stage version of The Sound of Music is a mid-size show, but Wise brings a visual grandeur to the adaptation that not only enhances the emotional impact of the story but helps to justify the conceit of musical drama within the context of that story.
And this, ultimately, is how the movie manages to square the usual movie musical need for stylization with the contemporary demand for realism. Instead of the colorful and vaguely cartoony flights of fancy that previous musicals in its subgenre were liable to take, The Sound Of Music achieves a sense of otherworldliness through the sheer overwhelming beauty of its bucolic locations. A place this lovely, some part of our minds think, should also have beautiful singing in it; it only makes sense.
This is not to say that the movie lets the scenery do all the work, however. Presentation is vital, and this film managed to deliver in exactly the right way from the very top. Where West Side’s opening zoom into the human details of the scenery was highly presentational – following, as it did, a full round of credits designed by the great Saul Bass – the iconic pull-in to a jubilant Julie Andrews on Mehlweg mountain in Bavaria comes right away, as does the opening line of singing. We are given no time to question, but are immediately swept away precisely as the film intends. Only after the end of the song – which is to say, only after the film has firmly established its aesthetic – do we get any credits.
The film that follows from that could have been lousy and it would probably still have been immortal on the strength of that opening sequence alone.
It also may be part of the reason that the movie has so completely eclipsed the stage show in the public consciousness. Oklahoma! is still very firmly a stage show first, as are Carousel, South Pacific, and many others. But the stage version of The Sound of Music is seldom performed these days, and – more to the point – when the musical is mentioned, nobody pictures Mary Martin on a stage. They picture Julie Andrews spinning in the ecstasy of freedom on a grassy mountain.
That may be the starkest indicator possible of a successful film adaptation.