The Sound of Music opened in New York sixty years ago, an instant hit and lucrative evergreen ever since: the Broadway musical, the Hollywood movie, the string of intensely memorable, sing-able songs. At Vienna’s Volksoper, it appears regularly in deutscher Sprache mit englischen Übertiteln, which are hardly necessary even for those in the audience who speak no German at all. Who doesn’t know the story? Austria, early 1938: a dignified widower and ex–naval hero with seven children and a big house near Salzburg employs as governess a postulant from the local abbey. A charmer not cut out for the cloistered life, she rekindles the family’s love of music, warms the master’s heart, and marries him. They all make music together, perform at the Salzburg Festival, and then, when the captain refuses his services to the navy of the Third Reich after the Anschluss, the family bravely escapes over the mountains just in time.

It is a true story, or “inspired by a true story,” as the phrase goes. Producers for both stage and screen took significant liberties. In real life, Captain von Trapp was a warm and loving father, not the remote whistle-blowing martinet of play and movie. He and the governess married in 1927, not 1938. The family was musically accomplished before Maria’s arrival. And their escape from Austria was not on foot over the mountains, which would have led them to Germany (not Switzerland), but by train out the back door of their Salzburg villa to Italy, under the pretense of a family vacation in the Dolomites. No matter. The Sound of Music preserved the essence of the tale, while cranking up its emotive power with, well, the sounds of music, as only Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein could conjure them. They had done it before with Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I. With The Sound of Music they hit the bulls-eye one last time (Hammerstein died in 1960) and hit it with a howitzer. Some still would say that those mid-century plays define the canon, that they represent the high-water mark of American musical theater. All of them scaled up handsomely to the big screen as well, there to beguile millions who would never get close to Broadway or the West End—and to make millions for their producers.

Rolf Gruber and Liesel in the Volksoper's Sound of Music. Photo: Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien

The immensity of this success has, I suspect, something to do with the tension felt by this playgoer on seeing The Sound of Music, not in September 1962 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York where I first encountered it, but in April 2019 at the Volksoper in Vienna. The Sound of Music, to distinguish it from the von Trapps’ real story, was an authentic American creation—and unapologetically so. The writers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse transposed Maria’s memoir, The Trapp Family Singers, into the cultural idiom of mid-century America, and Rodgers & Hammerstein turned it into musical gold. The result was success writ with a capital S, as everything American then seemed to be. The Sound of Music, the musical (1959) or the movie (1965) equally, meant and still means bright lights and box office success. The Austrian story that “inspired” it is different—altogether quieter in tone, almost domestic. The German word gemütlich, with its suggestion of intimate warmth and contentedness, says it better than anything in English. The difference isn’t surprising. Dramatizers dramatize. They add to and subtract from the story. They amplify romance, inject menace, jigger around characters, compress time.

Obviously there is a cultural memory at work here that would be absent in America, and a level of engagement that is impossible to elicit in any movie.

But there is something else to the tension. If the von Trapps’ story has two halves, one European and the other American, the pivot between them is political. In the 1930s, when the von Trapps were living their real-life story, politics drove that story’s outcome and forced them to America. Twenty years later, when The Sound of Music burst upon us, politicization of the arts wasn’t yet what it has in our day become, and there was no hint of it in that piece of, frankly, light entertainment. Politics are present in the original play and movie, but not politics imposed retrospectively. Politics are there in the story—in the history.

In the lamentable tale of Nazi aggression in the 1930s, the Austrian chapter, which climaxed with the Anschluss of March 1938, was particularly depressing. The flimsy post-Versailles Austrian Republic had been subverted from within and was defenseless without. The Germans rolled in overnight without a shot fired, bringing about not the amalgamation of two German-speaking families, as Goebbels’s propaganda proclaimed, but the conquest and eradication of one nation state by another. The French and the British said little and did nothing, and the Americans were far away and out of the picture, so the dirty business got done. The following exchange (from the movie) between the fictional impresario and political trimmer Max Dettweiler and Captain von Trapp, at the moment Dettweiler reveals that the von Trapp family will be singing that very night in the Salzburg Festival, reveals just how dirty the business was for a patriotic Austrian. The Captain had always said his family would never perform in public:

Dettweiler, playing the patriotism card: “It would be good for Austria!”

The Captain, sneering: “There is no Austria.”

Dettweiler, desperate: “At least the Anschluss happened peacefully; we can be grateful for that.”

The Captain, with contempt: “Max, there are times when I don’t think I know you.”

This is the political moment into which The Sound of Music—the play and the movie—compresses the von Trapp family story.

Austria today is peaceful, prosperous, and polite. On the night we attended the Volksoper’s Sound of Music, the audience looked as such. In our row sat one Austrian family in three generations: grandparents in their late sixties or seventies who said they knew the story from the movie; parents in their forties who said they weren’t that familiar with it at all; and their children (six, twelve, and fifteen) who sat, riveted, through the show’s two-plus hours. The elders at the Volksoper were generally better-dressed than their American counterparts would have been, and more than a few theatergoers had donned traditional Austrian costume for the occasion: boys in lederhosen, girls in dirndls, and some grown-ups, too. At the bar at intermission I spied out a few truly elder elders: Austrians in their eighties and nineties, old enough to have witnessed, as children and teenagers themselves, the sad events of 1938 with which the show’s second act would soon climax.

It is here that the Volksoper’s magnificent stagecraft, coupled with a script that reduces the sugar content of the movie and maximizes the historical resonance without losing any of the musical charm, sets this Sound of Music apart. The Alps around Salzburg, almost another character in the story, are rendered in their unique coolness through lighting design heavy on blues and purples. The ballroom scene, which sets up the children’s famous departure number, “So Long, Farewell,” opens onto a dazzling chandelier suspended between two grand staircases and takes your breath away.

It is also here that light entertainment slips into drama. The family is performing at the Salzburg Festival, the plan already set for their escape. Then, almost without knowing it, the 2019 audience in Vienna “enters” the play to become the 1938 audience in Salzburg. The Anschluss has taken place. An oversized Hakenkreuz, in all its red, white, and black Nazi vividness, overhangs the scene—endlessly, it seems. Helmeted storm troopers, cradling very convincing machine guns, guard the aisles. And in the foremost box, stage right, two Nazi big shots clad in black with red swastika armbands wait impatiently to “escort” the captain to Bremerhaven and his new command in Hitler’s navy. The whole family sings. Then the Captain strums and sings “Edelweiss”—not the Hammerstein lyrics but Austrian ones auf Deutsch—straight into the eyes of evil. The performers exit to await the judges’ decision. Dettweiler announces the von Trapps as the winners. But they have vanished. Sirens blare. Searchlight beams crisscross the auditorium to find them. No one moves.

Rodgers & Hammerstein are not Mozart, but how many, even in Austria, go home humming tunes from The Magic Flute?

Obviously there is a cultural memory at work here that would be absent in America, and a level of engagement that is impossible to elicit in any movie. I suspect this dramaturgical move has been made before, though I cannot remember how it was done in New York in 1962. But in Austria today, where eighty years ago such events actually happened, it is a moment that slams the audience back into its seats. Forget about schnitzel-with-noodle. Swastikas facing off with real-life Mädchen in Dirndl beside us in Row J make potent theater by any measure.

That The Sound of Music did not get produced full-scale in Austria until 2005—forty years after the movie’s premiere—has something do with the tangle of wars, post-wars, and memories thereof that gripped Austrian politics for decades after 1938. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which the musical, especially the movie version, has captivated America and other countries with its image of Austria as “Sound-of-Music-Land,” where three out of four visitors to Salzburg come not to pay homage to Mozart, but to visit the sites made famous by Julie Andrews and the von Trapp children. Though the movie proved a boon for the tourist trade, many Austrians dismissed it as idealized American kitsch. And then, after the revelation in 1986 of the soon-to-be-president Kurt Waldheim’s dubious wartime past, the movie evoked the opposite cliché of Austria as a land of Nazi stooges and collaborators—well represented in the characters of Herr Zeller the Gauleiter, Franz the butler, Rolf the telegraph boy, and Dettweiler.

When The Sound of Music at last joined the permanent repertoire of the Volksoper in 2005, its producers squared off with their country’s troubling history and achieved something more supple. As told from the Austrian side, the von Trapps’ redemptive family story cannot be pried from a shameful national story that was part of a larger tragedy. Their tale bids Austrians today (and not Austrians alone) to step into the shoes of others from that time. It bids us all to think afresh on questions that have until recently been dismissed and deemed forgotten in the age of the European Union: What is my country worth, anyway? Is my country, in fact, my country? Is my country threatened from within or without? Do I go along, or do I or resist? What does homeland (the German Heimat, evoking memory, security, and family, says it better) mean?

For all this heavy lifting, the Volksoper’s Sound of Music shortchanges none of the themes—family solidarity, youthful innocence, religious devotion, love of country—that pulled us in when we first saw the play or the movie long ago. And of course, no one can escape the music. Rodgers & Hammerstein are not Mozart, but how many, even in Austria, go home humming tunes from The Magic Flute? Austria appears to have made its peace with this blockbuster feat of American storytelling and songwriting, and in the Volksoper production it has made our piece its own. In a salute perhaps to the inevitable, the director Renaud Doucet decided, “at the very beginning” in 2005, to close every performance with a collective choral curtain-call. With the cast assembled on stage, the conductor turns in the pit to face the audience, waves us up from our seats, and leads a full-throated sing-along, auf Deutsch, of “Edelweiss”: “Du blűhst hoch und verborgen . . .

It is corny—the biggest cliché of all. And it works.

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