Musical Space: 'The Sound Of Music' Nears 60

Dec 18, 2018

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s final collaboration, “The Sound of Music.” It was inspired by the real-life Trapp Family, who were forced to flee their home in Austria because of their philosophical differences with the Nazi party, and for whom music became their sanctuary and their passport to a new life.

The much-loved story has been given a wide range of dramatic and musical interpretations, and I’ll have the privilege of directing a brand new production next summer for Music Theatre Wichita.

That’s particularly meaningful for me, since my first-ever participation in a musical show was playing 17-year-old Rolf, the telegram boy, back when I was in college in Santa Barbara California, and also because I later worked with Richard Rodgers, when I performed in a Broadway show called “Rodgers and Hart: A Musical Celebration,” that he supervised.

As part of my preparation for any show I work on, I like to do as much research as possible, and for this show that’s particularly enjoyable, because the original source material has a lot of fascinating documentation, and because the melodic Rodgers and Hammerstein score has inspired a number of diverse musical artists to interpret it.

The original Broadway cast album with Mary Martin and the film soundtrack with Julie Andrews are certainly the most well known recordings, but some of the other versions are actually my “Favorite Things,” including John Coltrane’s famous interpretation, and more obscure versions like French singer Mathé Altéry’s take on the role of Maria.

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After “The Sound of Music” debuted on Broadway in 1959, some of the surviving members of the actual Trapp Family went into the recording studio and interpreted the score, giving it the same kind of instrumentation and vocal arrangements they would have used on the authentic folks songs they normally sang. The most effective of these is “My Favorite Things.”

And what a wide journey it is from that delicate rendition to this iconic jazz interpretation by saxophonist John Coltrane and his quartet in 1965:

  

Because the Oscar-winning film version had the potential to be an international success, it was natural to dub the film into each country’s native language. Traditionally with Hollywood musicals, for foreign markets the dialogue was dubbed into the new language, but the songs were sung in the original English, with subtitles added. This time, however, the decision was made to also dub the songs, with carefully crafted lyrics that retained the same basic sense of the original text but were singable and idiomatic in the new language, and with lyrics that still rhymed. Beyond that, the adaptors also tried to choose words that approximated the lip movements of the actors on screen.

One of the loveliest of the foreign language recordings is the French soundtrack, with singer Mathé Altéry singing the role of Maria – in Julie Andrews’ keys, of course. The film is given the title “La Mélodie du Bonheur” (“The Melody of Happiness”).

Because the Trapp Family originally sang in German, it should be no surprise that the score sounds particularly nice when returned to its “native tongue,” as it were. Interestingly, when “The Sound of Music” film was about to premiere in Germany (as “Meine Lieder, Miene Träume ” - “My Songs, My Dreams”), one theatre manager worried about offending German sensibilities, and cut the film’s last half hour, ending the film with the wedding of Maria and Captain Von Trapp, and eliminating any reference to the Nazis. 20th Century Fox studios heard about it and insisted that the film be shown intact. Here are two entertaining bits from the German soundtrack: “I Have Confidence,” sung by Ursula Shirrmacher,

…followed by a very touching rendition of the last song ever written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Edelweiss,” sung here by Camillo Felgen as Capt. Von Trapp.

A number of pop vocalists have taken on the role of Maria, either on stage, TV, or recordings. Petula Clark had a big hit with the show in London in 1981. Here’s her unique take on “I Have Confidence,” one of the two songs written by Richard Rodgers especially for the film, and often included in stage versions now:  

   (I’d start around 2:37)

And most notoriously, country singer Carrie Underwood portrayed Maria on TV in 2013, in the first Live Musical broadcast on national TV in several decades. Reviewers were not kind to her acting or to the production overall, but it attracted a huge viewership, and brought live Broadway musicals back to the TV-watching public. It also produced a very satisfying TV cast album, from which my favorite track is “The Lonely Goatherd” – one moment in the show when Underwood’s country yodel actually proves to be an asset.

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