‘The Sound of Music’ celebrates its Golden Jubilee

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Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) interrupts after Maria (Julie Andrews) and Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) share a dance. The real Maria von Trapp said she fell in love with the children before she fell in love with their father. (Twentieth Century Fox)
Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) interrupts after Maria (Julie Andrews) and Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) share a dance. The real Maria von Trapp said she fell in love with the children before she fell in love with their father. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Anyone who wants to remember “favorite things” in 2015 is in luck, as the original film premiere of “The Sound of Music” will have its 50th anniversary.

“The Sound of Music” combined a memorable musical score, breathtakingly scenic cinematography and Julie Andrews’ vocal talent to produce a five-time Academy Award winner that captured the hearts of millions. The 50th anniversary of this timeless movie musical’s world premiere in New York City is March 2.

“The Sound of Music” displaced “Gone with the Wind” (which was already 26 years old) as the highest-grossing box-office film of all time. Adjusting for inflation, it remains the third-highest-grossing film of all time.

BYU professor Merrill Jenson, who specializes in film scoring, said “The Sound of Music” was a success largely due to its story. “The script is always the first and most important part of a film,” he said. Jenson also named Julie Andrews’ talent and the beautiful setting of Salzburg, Austria, as contributors to the film’s appeal.

Robert Wise, the film’s director, also said the script contributed to the film’s immense success. “It’s a family film; nothing more universal,” Wise said in an interview with The New York Times in 2005.

The screenwriter drew ideas from the Broadway musical, the last work by the famous songwriting team Rodgers & Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who died of cancer shortly after the musical opened on Broadway, wrote the lyrics. Though it was the first musical theater version of the story of Maria and the von Trapp family, it was not the first fictional retelling of the family’s story. Two West German films, “Die Trapp Familie” (1956) and “Die Trapp Familie in Amerika” (1958), were based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.”

The von Trapps did not have much of a say in how they were portrayed in the German or FOX films. Maria von Trapp sold the film rights to German producers and lost her own rights in the process. The family has never directly profited from the film, though for decades they’ve run a Vermont lodge and ski-resort that trades on the family name.

Several historical alterations were made in the movie. The von Trapp family had ten children total; seven were from Baron von Trapp’s first marriage, and three more children came after Maria and Georg von Trapp were married. In the movie, the children’s names, ages and genders were also changed.

The real Baron von Trapp was a warm and good-humored man, not the hard and cynical character portrayed in the movie. This inaccurate portrayal distressed the von Trapp family greatly.

Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), sings the song 'Edelweiss' in 'The Sound of Music.' The musical remains the third-highest grossing film of all time, even after 50 years. (Twentieth Century Fox)
Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), sings the song ‘Edelweiss’ in ‘The Sound of Music.’ The musical remains the third-highest grossing film of all time, even after 50 years. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Another major deviation from reality is the love story. Maria did not fall in love with Georg von Trapp right away. As she put it in an address to BYU students in 1965, “I fell in love with the children and married the father; I got used to the father, and we were very happy.”

Even the movie’s ending is fabricated; the von Trapps did not escape over the mountains to Switzerland but left by train to Italy in clear daylight. Eventually they made their way to the United States, mostly with the money they made singing. Once in America, they settled in Stowe, Vermont.

The film is beloved by many Americans despite these, and other, deviations from historical truth. BYU history professor Stewart Anderson, who specializes in Modern Europe and media, sees “The Sound of Music” as an “iconic touchstone” in American culture. “It was beautifully made, which adds to its long shelf life. It is not only canonical for film historians; it formed part of peoples’ lives,” Anderson said.

In 2001, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress because it was deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Blogger Sally Torbey toured the filming sites of “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg, Austria, with her family last winter. Retracing Maria von Trapp’s steps reminded her how much she loved the movie as a kid. “I still know every verse to every song, with ‘Do, Re, Mi’ being the first song I ever picked out on the piano,” Torbey said.

As the spouse of an immigrant from the Middle East, she identifies with the von Trapps’ departure from Salzburg and their decision to start life over in a new country. “As good as life turned out in the U.S. for both the von Trapps and my husband, it is a huge sacrifice to leave a culture, family and mother tongue behind, despite the gratitude one has for the life one makes here,” Torbey said.

Political science junior Makade Claypool saw the movie for the first time as a young boy. He later played the role of Uncle Max in his high school’s production of the play. Though he’d always loved the music, he didn’t fully understand the intensity of the time period or the deeper messages of the story until he became a part of the production.

For Claypool, the deeper message of the musical revolves around families. “For me, there’s a very strong message about the family and defending the family in spite of what’s going on around you,” Claypool said.

The film’s message about the family as well, as well as the fact that it’s family-friendly, may be a reason why new generations continue to share the film with their children.

In a BYU Devotional given on Sept. 9, 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke highly of “The Sound of Music” as a worthy form of entertainment: “The other night, Sister Kimball and I watched, by means of video cassette, an older movie, ‘The Sound of Music,’” President Kimball said. “It was delightful. The music was beautiful, the acting superb, the scenery magnificent. It was wholesome and entertaining in every way. We had a wonderful, relaxing evening together. However, as you well know, it is difficult nowadays to find such entertainment.”

“The Sound of Music” isn’t just beloved in America. The film’s legacy continues to reach across generations and across the globe. When BYU’s Young Ambassadors went to the People’s Republic of China in 1979, they met a famous Chinese soprano who was very excited by some ‘new’ American music she had just learned: “Do, Re, Mi” and “The Sound of Music.”

Young Ambassadors Director Randall Boothe recalls that when they returned to China in 1980, their renditions of those same songs were well-received. The songs were still fresh for the Chinese people, though it had been 15 years since the American release of the movie. “The minute you started singing, they started clapping,” Boothe said.

“The Sound of Music” score continues to delight the next generation.

In the last 50 years, the film has survived not only innumerable television reruns, anniversary DVD and Blu-ray editions, sing-a-longs, cast reunions and NBC’s rebroadcast with Carrie Underwood as Maria — it has survived the test of time.

“People don’t look at it and think, ‘That’s old,’” Boothe said. “It is very much beloved. There’s no question that it has become a timeless piece of American musical theater that, I’m sure 50 years from now, is going to be every bit as relevant and as fondly remembered.”

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