The Sound of Music: The Making of America's Favorite Movie

The Sound of Music: The Making of America's Favorite Movie

by Julia Antopol Hirsch

Paperback(Revised edition)

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When The Sound of Music was released in 1965, it took the world by storm, capturing five Oscars (including Best Picture) and holding the number-one spot box-office record for five years. For millions of viewers, the film is a rare combination of a powerful and moving story, superb music, and breathtaking scenery.
            The Sound of Music: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie is not only an unequalled tribute to this beloved movie musical but also the most complete behind-the-scenes account of the creation of this Hollywood classic.
            Through exclusive, in-depth interviews with Robert Wise, Ernest Lehman, Saul Chaplin, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Kym Karath, Johannes von Trapp, Richard Zanuck, and dozens of other cast and crew members; over 200 stills from the movie’s most memorable scenes; rare snapshots from personal scrapbooks; and papers from the Fox Studio archives, Julia Antopol Hirsch has re-created the magic that is The Sound of Music:
  • Julie Andrews’s “first kiss” with Christopher Plummer, she recalls, was crazy, because neither of them could stop laughing.
  • Plummer’s after hours festivities with the nuns around the piano often went on way into the night.
  • When she rushed up the mountain for the famous opening scene, Julie Andrews kept getting knocked to the ground by the downdraft from the cameraman’s helicopter.
  • Yul Brynner, Walter Matthau, and Sean Connery were all considered for the role of the Captain.
  • Mia Farrow, Sharon Tate, and Richard Dreyfuss auditioned for juvenile roles.
  • Director Robert Wise, under pressure from Fox’s Richard Zanuck for being over budget, almost didn’t finish the location shoot in Austria because it simply wouldn’t stop raining.
Now completely updated and in full color throughout, this engaging volume is both an insider’s guide to and a delightful celebration of “the happiest sound in all the world!”

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780912777382
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Edition description: Revised edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 516,261
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Julia Antopol Hirsch is a screenwriter and former story editor for Robert Wise Productions. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.

Read an Excerpt


"Let's Start at the Very Beginning ..."


Maria Augusta Kutschera made her grand entrance into the world in a fashion that would later typify her character: in motion. She was born on January 26, 1905, on a train racing toward Vienna. Already displaying signs of a restless nature, she was just too impatient to wait until the train reached the city, where a staff of doctors would surely be waiting at the hospital. Instead, her mother, Augusta, was forced to recruit a train conductor to act as midwife, and just before the stroke of midnight, he helped deliver Augusta's baby daughter.

Augusta died of pneumonia when Maria was two years old, and her father left the youngster with an elderly cousin's family so that he could be free to travel throughout Europe. (This seemed to be her father's pattern; when his first wife died, he had left Maria's older brother to be raised by the same relatives.) Maria was reared in a family of adults, and she became a lonely and unhappy child. The household she lived in was also so strict and her uncle, who became her legal guardian after her father died, so physically abusive that she developed a rebellious nature as well.

Maria's guardians had brought her up as a socialist and raised her to be cynical toward all religion, but a visiting Jesuit priest who lectured at her college changed her life. His speech had a powerful impact on the vulnerable young student, though Maria still felt compelled to meet the priest a few days later to "enlighten" him as to all the reasons his beliefs were wrong. But at that meeting the priest's composure and quiet confidence impressed the romantic young woman, and all her arguments were forgotten. Instead she found his unwavering faith and utter tranquility the perfect medicine to heal her troubled heart.

Maria's newfound religious beliefs became so strong, in fact, that after graduating from college with a degree in education, the once-devout atheist traveled to Salzburg, Austria, and joined the Nonnberg Abbey as a postulant. Maria was intensely devoted to the convent, but her dedication did not prevent the former tomboy from getting into mischief. The sudden change from her free-spirited college days of mountain climbing to the more sedate life at the abbey also seemed to adversely affect her health.

One day, the Reverend Mother called Maria to her office. Maria's headaches had worried the abbey's doctor; he thought she needed exercise and fresh air. So the Mother Abbess had decided to send Maria to the home of retired naval captain Georg von Trapp, to be governess to one of his young daughters. The child, also named Maria, had developed rheumatic fever and was forced to spend much of her time in bed. The young postulant accepted her new post only after she received the Reverend Mother's promise that in nine months she could return to the abbey for good.

But, as we all know, Maria never did come back to stay. She married the Captain on November 26, 1927, and had three children to add to the seven from his first marriage. The family, whose members seemed to have a natural talent for music and whose voices blended beautifully, began to perform professionally — at the Salzburg Festivals, on the radio, and even touring Europe. When Hitler invaded Austria and the Captain was called back into service for the navy of the Third Reich, the family, violently opposed to the Nazi regime, decided to escape. They climbed over the mountains to Italy; from there they traveled to England, then crossed the ocean to America, where they continued to perform as the famous Trapp Family Singers.

When the young Maria rang that steeple bell, she had had no inkling that her innocent wish to become a writer would come true or that her life would eventually be the subject of two German motion pictures, a Broadway play, and the most successful American musical film of all time. But had she known, Maria would not have been surprised. She was a strong personality and a powerful promoter of her family.

Mary Martin, who starred as Maria in the Broadway musical, wrote in her autobiography, My Heart Belongs, "I came to the conclusion that perhaps the family didn't just climb that mountain to escape. She pushed them, all the way up."

Promoting her family was one of the reasons Maria wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers in 1948. Soon after the book was published, Hollywood beckoned. But the producers wanted to buy only the title of her book, and Maria turned them down flat. They'd have to buy the whole story or nothing.

According to Maria's autobiography, Maria, in 1956, German producer Wolfgang Reinhardt, son of the famous film director Max Reinhardt, approached Maria with a contract for $10,000 to buy the rights to her entire story. That was a tidy sum to a widow with ten children (the Captain had died in 1947), but Maria's lawyer suggested that she also ask for royalties.

Maria on her wedding day.

Heeding his advice, Maria met again with the producer's agent and asked for a share of the movie's profits. The agent hesitated and said he'd have to call Germany and ask Reinhardt's permission. He came back shortly and said, "I am sorry, I have to inform you that there is a law in existence which forbids a German film company from paying royalties to foreigners." (Maria was now an American citizen.) Maria took the man at his word and didn't even verify his story with her lawyer. She signed the contract and, at the same time, unknowingly signed away all film rights, including all profit participation, to her story. Not only had the agent misled her (no such law existed), but he actually called her a few weeks later and suggested that if she would agree to take $9,000 instead of the full $10,000, he could give the entire amount to her immediately. She needed the cash and made the deal.

* * *

Die Trapp Familie was produced in Germany in 1956 and became a big hit. It did so well that Reinhardt followed it up in 1958 with a sequel titled Die Trapp Familie in Amerika. Both movies starred Ruth Leuwerik as Maria and Hans Holt as the Captain and were directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. They soon became the most successful films produced in Germany since World War II and subsequently became hits in Europe and South America as well.

Paramount Pictures in Hollywood purchased the US film rights to the two movies, hoping to produce an English-language version as a vehicle for its young star, Audrey Hepburn. At the time, Paramount had just signed Broadway and television director Vincent Donehue to a contract with no specific project in mind. One of the first things they showed him was the film Die Trapp Familie. Donehue sat watching the picture in Paramount's projection room, and when the lights went up, he turned to John Mock, story editor at Paramount, and said, "I think this would make a great vehicle for Mary Martin!"

Donehue had directed Mary Martin in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun along with the television version of the musical. He'd also worked with Martin in the stage and television versions of The Skin of Our Teeth and two other television specials. Donehue, Martin, and Martin's husband, producer Richard Halliday, had been looking for another project to work on together for the Broadway stage. Donehue flew the film back to New York and screened it for Martin and her husband. They fell in love with the idea and began working on the project.

By the time they went to buy the rights, however, Paramount had dropped its option and no longer owned the rights to the German films. So Halliday, unaware of Maria's deal with the German producers, thought he had to go through Maria to get permission. Maria, who was involved in missionary work in New Guinea at the time, soon began receiving strange notes from an American producer saying he wanted to turn her story into a Broadway play starring Mary Martin. Maria received three of these notes, and each time she got one she tore it up. She didn't know who Mary Martin was, and she thought the whole idea of a play based on her book was preposterous!

When Maria returned from New Guinea, an undaunted Richard Halliday was waiting to meet her ship in San Francisco. He invited her to see his wife's performance in Annie Get Your Gun that evening. Maria loved the show and afterward went backstage to meet Mary Martin.

From the moment they met, Maria and the future "Maria" felt they were kindred souls. But unfortunately, the real Maria von Trapp had no say in whether or not Halliday could buy the rights to the book. Reinhardt's company in Germany had seen to that. So Halliday and his partner, Leland Hayward, made a deal with the German producer. And although legally the American producers didn't owe Maria a penny, they voluntarily gave her three-eighths of 1 percent in royalties on the Broadway show. It was more than Maria expected, and she was grateful.

Initially Martin and Halliday conceived of their version of Die Trapp Familie as a straight dramatic play, using the actual folk songs and religious numbers the Trapp family sang on tour. So they hired playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse — whose previous successes had included Life with Father and State of the Union, for which they had won the Pulitzer — to write the stage play. The writing team had also produced many shows on Broadway, including Arsenic and Old Lace.

After securing Lindsay and Crouse, Halliday and Martin approached the legendary composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and asked them to write one original song for Martin to sing in the play. But Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that mixing the two styles of music, theirs with authentic Austrian folk songs, would be like mixing oil and water. They did, however, offer to write an entirely fresh new score and to act as coproducers of the show. The one stipulation they had was that Halliday and company wait until Rodgers and Hammerstein completed work on their current project, Flower Drum Song. Halliday and Martin decided it was worth the wait to get the talented duo on board.

* * *

The Sound of Music opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York on November 16, 1959. The reviews ranged from indifference to loathing. The critics found it too "sweet" and "saccharine" (terms that would later haunt the film version), but the audience must have had a sweet tooth, because they ate it up. As Richard Rodgers wrote years later, "It's my conviction that anyone who can't, on occasion, be sentimental about children, home or nature is sadly maladjusted."

The show ran on Broadway for 1,443 performances, won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, and sold more than three million cast albums. Martin's popularity was a big contribution to the show's success; even before the play opened the box office had garnered $2 million in advance ticket sales. For 1959, when theater ticket prices hovered around $5, a $2 million advance was a notable beginning.

On opening night, legendary motion picture agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, who represented the show's writers, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay, and Crouse, was sitting in the audience with the president of Twentieth Century Fox, Spyros Skouras. Skouras was there because his studio had "right of first refusal" on any new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. (Twentieth Century Fox had adapted three Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as motion pictures: South Pacific, Carousel, and The King and I. When Fox purchased The King and I, it also acquired the right to option any subsequent Rodgers and Hammerstein properties before the other studios had a chance to do so.)

As Skouras sat watching the play, Swifty Lazar watched his client, wanting to gauge the studio chief's reaction to the show. By the middle of the play, Lazar had no doubts. "He was crying like a baby," the agent recalled, "and I knew I had a customer."

But Lazar and Skouras were not the only Hollywood visitors to realize the musical's film potential. Two weeks after it opened, screenwriter Ernest Lehman went to see the show. Lehman had begun his career working in the office of a theatrical press agent in New York, where he learned the ins and outs of show business. He turned this knowledge into numerous magazine articles, short stories, and novelettes, including a novelette that he later adapted as a movie, Sweet Smell of Success. A novelette, The Comedian, which followed Success, brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and he was summoned to the West Coast. His first screenplay was Executive Suite at MGM. The director of the film was a man with whom Lehman would establish strong ties as both a friend and collaborator on four films — Robert Wise.

Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp.

Following his successful Hollywood debut, Lehman went on to write the screenplays of such classics as North by Northwest and Somebody Up There Likes Me. In addition, he penned the screen adaptations of Sabrina, The King and I, West Side Story, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

During the intermission of The Sound of Music, Lehman and his wife rushed to a nearby Howard Johnson's restaurant for a quick bowl of soup. Over a cup of steaming clam chowder, Lehman turned to his wife and said, "I don't care what anyone says about this show; someday it's going to make a very successful movie." When he returned to California, he repeated this statement to David Brown, story editor at Twentieth Century Fox.

In June 1960, seven months after the show had opened, Twentieth Century Fox exercised its option and bought the rights to The Sound of Music for $1.25 million, against 10 percent of the gross. Lazar had certainly found a willing customer: at that time, this was the largest sum a studio had ever spent on a literary property.

Fox also protected its investment by purchasing a six-year option on the US release of the two German films Die Trapp Familie and Die Trapp Familie in Amerika. Fox combined these two movies into one, hired Lee Kresel to dub the film in English, retitled it The Trapp Family, and released it in the United States in March 1961. Once again, the critics found the story as light as Wonder Bread. A reviewer from Daily Variety wrote that its "uncompromisingly sentimental nature has a tendency to slop over into naivete." Shades of reviews to come.

Fox's contract with Rodgers et al. stipulated that the film of its musical could not "be released in the United States or Canada until all first-class stage presentations of the musical have closed in such countries or December 31, 1964, whichever is earlier." So even though Fox paid a handsome price for The Sound of Music, the property was put on hold. And while it lingered on the shelf, the studio's finances, which had begun tumbling in the midfifties, took a nosedive.

In fact, the only reason Fox had been able to purchase the property in the first place was the standard industry practice of paying in installments. The contract, dated May 31, 1961 (although the deal was made a year earlier), called for the payment to be made as follows: $125,000 paid in December 1961; $100,000 payable June 30, 1962; $823,850 after worldwide release; and $201,150 to be paid in nine installments of $22,350 each, on each anniversary of the release date. If 10 percent of the gross exceeded $1.25 million, then the additional payments would be made quarterly. The rights would expire on December 31, 1977.

Fox's financial troubles began in 1956, when Darryl Zanuck left for Paris to start his own independent production company. Zanuck, who had founded the film company Twentieth Century and had then merged with Fox Films to create Twentieth Century Fox, had once been the guiding light of the studio. But after his departure, a succession of studio heads came and went — all supervised by Fox president Spyros Skouras.

Unstable leadership however, was not the studio's only problem. By the late fifties, the studio had had a series of failures at the box office. To make matters worse, television had by then become the most popular form of entertainment, which spelled poison for the entire motion picture business. At the same time, location shooting was becoming the most cost-effective way to make pictures, and the old studio system was becoming obsolete. Things finally got so bad for Fox that in 1957 Skouras even flirted with the notion of giving up the Fox lot completely and simply renting studio space at MGM over in Culver City. This would have meant giving up both its status as a major studio and its industry muscle.


Excerpted from "The Sound of Music"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Julia Hirsch.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 "Let's Start at the Very Beginning ...",
2 "When You Read You Begin with ABC ...",
3 "Search High and Low ...",
4 "With Each Step, I Am More Certain ...",
5 "Climb Every Mountain ...",
6 "I Must Have Done Something Good ...",
7 "What Will My Future Be, I Wonder ...",
8 "Till You Find Your Dream ...",

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