‘Sound of Music’ brings messages along with the melodies when it returns to TV Sunday night
As the “Sound of Music” spreads its message of music and hope via TV screens across the country this holiday season, some viewers will sing jauntily along, others will repeat their favorite lines, and a few will call it syrupy even while acknowledging its charm.
Many of us who grew up watching it air on TV each year didn’t realize, until we were able to watch the 174-minute film on DVD much later, that the movie was often edited for television, with minor scenes and funny lines sliced out in order to cram commercials into three hours. In the 1990s, network TV began airing the movie in full.
But what we missed more often as youngsters was that, like many of the movie musicals of the middle of the 20th century, the show had dark political themes among the spirited tunes and humor. The story is really about deciding which principles to compromise in order to go along with the masses. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse — who had already won a Pulitzer prize for their 1945 political play “State of the Union” — wrote the book for the 1959 “Sound of Music” stageshow, with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein contributing the music. They ultimately bundled it all into a family-friendly story that they first brought to Broadway in November of 1959.
As we know, the plot follows spirited novice nun Maria (her real name was Kutschera), assigned to help a widowed naval captain take care of his seven children over a summer. Captain Georg Von Trapp falls in love with her, despite being engaged to the older, wealthy Baroness Elsa Schraeder.
“You won’t have to bow your head…to stoop a little.” — Max
Some of the darker lines and songs in the stage show were omitted from the movie. The song “No Way to Stop It” centered on Captain Von Trapp’s disagreement with the Nazi regime and with the oncoming Anschluss of Austria. In the song, Baroness Schraeder and mischievous friend Max both advise the captain:
Max: Compromise, and be wise!
Elsa: Let them think you’re on their side; be noncommittal
Max: You won’t have to bow your head…to stoop a little
While the song didn’t end up in the film (it’s not that melodious), the themes of compromise and making tradeoffs prevailed. In the film, Max tells Maria, “He has to at least pretend to work with these people,” to which she replies, “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”
In real life,the Trapp family faced a dangerous situation by having to refuse the Nazis several times: Captain Von Trapp was recruited to command a submarine in the German navy; his oldest son Rupert was asked to work in a hospital in Vienna, which (under Nazi rule) would have meant activities that conflicted with his religious beliefs, and the family was asked to sing at Hitler’s birthday party. They chose to flee to Italy by train, and to eventually sang for their supper in America. While the show doesn’t detail all of these choices, nor does it duck the central quandary.
Ernest Lehman (“The Sweet Smell of Success” “West Side Story”) rewrote the story for film, increasing the romantic tension, shuffling scenes, and adding a cliffhanger just before intermission. The result was a three-hour delight full of light and dark moments, plus a litlte humor and philosophy. The show won five Oscars in 1965 and became the third highest grossing U.S. film of all time, adjusted for inflation (behind “Star Wars” and “Gone with the Wind”).
So when it airs again, you can call it sweet, call it syrupy, swoon over the romance, hiss at the telegram boy, or cheer for the nuns as they do a little mechanical work on German cars (no spoilers!) if you want. You can even boo the Nazis, but don’t worry — your kids will probably be asleep.