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.