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The Sound of Music Story
How a Beguiling Young Novice, a Handsome Austrian Captain, and Ten Singing Von Trapp Children Inspired the Most Beloved Film of All Time
By Tom Santopietro
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Tom Santopietro
All rights reserved.
A Very Good Place to Start
"I guess we did do something rather good." —JULIE ANDREWS TO CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER IN JULIE ANDREWS AND CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER—A REMINISCENCE
June 4, 1964: Julie Andrews was freezing. If this was spring weather in the Alps, what was it like in February?
With the sun rarely bothering to appear, weather continued to run roughshod over location shooting on The Sound of Music, and the unceasing rain had left one very small, unpaved road as the only way anyone could reach Mehlweg in southern Bavaria for the filming of the movie's title song. Which was precisely why the cold but ever-cooperative Andrews found herself arriving at the scenic meadow location by means of a decidedly unglamorous jeep.
Problems with the jeep, however, paled in comparison to the logistics involved with the rental of the helicopter that would swoop down to film Andrews as she launched into the world famous title song. Helicopter rentals were expensive—very expensive—and with the 20th Century-Fox front office firing off memos to director/producer Robert Wise to rein in the overbudget, much delayed filming, even the perpetually calm director felt the strain of completing the elaborate sequence. With only the first half of the number requiring the use of the helicopter, as soon as the shot was captured, the pilot would instantly fly to Obersalzburg for the filming of the movie's finale: the von Trapp family's escape over the Alps into Switzerland. There was no money for even one more day's helicopter rental.
The ever professional Andrews, a seasoned showbiz veteran at a mere twenty-eight, took an extra moment to prepare herself for the carefully staged rendering of the title song. This was no ordinary musical number, no song-and- dance routine laid down in the carefully controlled confines of the studio. Instead, in order to convey the sense of open-air freedom envisioned by Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a helicopter with storyboard artist Maurice Zuberano onboard would swoop in to film Andrews as she began her lilting vocal. With the helicopter weighed down by bulky equipment and cameraman Paul Beeson strapped precariously onto the side of the craft, the shot would prove difficult in execution—and potentially thrilling.
Wise and cinematographer Ted McCord knew that this opening not only had to look right, but would also establish the musical vocabulary for the entire film. If viewers did not accept the convention of Maria singing to herself while alone in the mountains, what would they ever make of a ten-minute montage set to the childlike "Do-Re-Mi"?
Wise had spent hours considering countless possible camera movements for this opening, only to discard every last one of them in favor of an overhead shot. Still, he hesitated. It would read onscreen just like the start of his own Academy Award–winning West Side Story, which began with a swooping camera that picked up dancers silhouetted against the New York City landscape. Well, the director figured, maybe it wasn't original, but at least he was stealing from himself.
McCord would be photographing the Alps—God's country—and the scene cried out for an omniscient, all seeing, from-the-sky approach, which is why the sixty-year-old Wise found himself perched halfway up a tree, waiting for the precise combination of light and wind speed that would allow Andrews to burst forth spinning into the title song.
But first, the shot had to be lined up and framed. There couldn't be the hint of another human being in sight: postulant Maria Rainer, momentarily freed from the stifling abbey, was singing precisely because she was basking in glorious solitude with nature. Andrews's slight figure would land smack in the middle of the frame, a speck against the wide open spaces until the helicopter zoomed in closer, still closer, and then—
From his perch halfway up the tree, Wise called out:
"Ready? ... Roll camera."
Camera operator, soundman, and loader replied:
"Scene one, Take one."
After the slate was clapped directly in front of the lens, Robert Wise paused momentarily and then commanded:
All eyes swiveled toward Julie Andrews. And waited. Until everyone realized that Julie could not hear any of that traditional start-of-scene checklist over the noise of the approaching helicopter.
Time to regroup. Choreographer Marc Breaux would now bellow "Go!" into his bullhorn, Andrews would charge forward, walking quickly in time to the music until at exactly the right moment she'd lean into her opening hillside twirl.
Camera running up to speed, scene slated, and once again: "Action!"
Andrews strode purposefully across the meadow, throwing herself into a full-bodied twirl, arms outstretched as if to embrace the entire world, and launched into the film's opening words: "The hills are alive ..."
Gone was the song's introductory verse beginning with the pensive "My day in the hills has come to an end, I know." Instead, bam! Right into the chorus—and right into Rodgers and Hammerstein's uncanny mix of music and faith. The song continued, and thirty seconds later there was Julie wanting to "sing through the night—like a lark who is learning to pray." Uh-oh, a praying bird? Was this all going to be too saccharine? Maybe—but thanks to St. Augustine, wasn't one of the von Trapp family sayings "When you sing, you pray twice?"
But for now there was trouble. Big trouble. And not with Andrews's performance. No matter the take, she lipsynched with pinpoint accuracy to her prerecorded vocal. The problem lay with the helicopter. With the nominal camera operator refusing to hang out of the plane, British cinematographer Paul Beeson assisted Wise and McCord by operating the camera himself while strapped to the side of the craft, the only way to capture the sought-after shot of Julie Andrews skimming along the meadow without the shadow of the craft falling on the ground. But each time the craft circled back to its starting position for another take, the force of the craft's downdraft proved so strong that Andrews found herself knocked over, sprawled in the grass while trying to avoid the mud. Pulling grass out of her hair and off her costume, makeup adjusted yet again, she would stride, twirl, sing, and once more find herself on the ground. Having been knocked down on fully half of the ten takes, even the placid Andrews "finally got so angry I yelled 'That's enough!'" Yell she did, but even Ethel Merman herself couldn't have been heard over the sound of the helicopter, and the pilot interpreted his star's hand signals asking him to please make a wider turn as a thumbs-up gesture of "You're doing great—let's go for one more." Was this any way to begin a multimillion-dollar musical? As it turned out, yes. And then some.
Wise, McCord, and Lehman had, in tandem with musical maestro/associate producer Saul Chaplin and co-choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, worked to finesse every last phrase of this song, yet here they were, in the third month of shooting, and one question still lay over the entire enterprise: could any of this really work? Would people buy a nun bursting into song—and in the opening shots of an eight-million-dollar widescreen Todd-AO, stereophonic sound production no less? People expected reality from their movies now. Foreign films and the marked relaxation of production code taboos had changed the very nature of moviegoing. Religious pictures were no longer in vogue and musicals had fallen out of favor; how was any of this going to be received?
As it turned out, with a worldwide fervent devotion, five Academy Awards, vitriolic critical disdain, and a cultural impact that continues to resonate some five decades after the film's initial release. But for now, Julie Andrews just needed to pick herself up, dust herself off, and try her damnedest to channel the life force that was Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp, a woman whose complex real-life backstory made the Maria von Trapp found in The Sound of Music appear to be, well, Mary Poppins.
A nun turned governess, Maria von Trapp had married her naval hero employer, instantly inherited his seven children, given birth to three more, pushed the entire family to international singing stardom, outwitted the Nazis, emigrated to America, and morphed into a combination of Austrian relief dynamo, lodge owner, missionary, entrepreneur, loving family matriarch, and occasionally, family dictator. It all played out like a real-life fairy tale, and by the time Maria von Trapp died in 1987 at the age of eighty-two, thanks to the Sound of Music she had been turned into nothing less than a secular saint. Sainted not by her own claims, though she hardly shunned the attention, but by the millions around the globe who wanted to believe that someone—anyone—could be as good as the Maria von Trapp glimpsed forty feet high on the screen in the utterly winning persona of Julie Andrews. Maria von Trapp, they reasoned, was proof positive that something good did indeed still exist in the ever-changing, ever-frightening world of the twentieth century. Was she really so good, so, well, perfect?
In the words of the John Ford Western masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."CHAPTER 2
How Do You Solve a Problem Like ...
"I realized when I was a little girl, that to get her attention you really had to engage her. She had done these tremendous things in her life; met presidents and kings, and I could tell that she didn't have time for a lot of details."
—MARIA VON TRAPP'S GRANDDAUGHTER ELISABETH, VANITY FAIR, JUNE 1998
The one overwhelming irony lying at the heart of The Sound of Music's immutable status as a touchstone of childhood innocence is that Maria herself had anything but a storybook childhood. Far from security and happiness, Maria's formative years featured insecurity, neglect, and oft-times downright cruelty.
Born on a train bound for Vienna on January 26, 1905, Maria was only three years old when her mother died. After first living with a father who was unable or unwilling to take care of her, the youngster was sent to live with foster parents. When, after her father died in 1914, nine-year-old Maria was forced to live with a relative known as "Uncle" Franz, the darkest years of her life ensued. Far from providing a welcoming home, the tyrannical Franz, a socialist and anti-Catholic atheist, had little time for his young charge, and, as detailed in Maria's decades' later autobiography, often beat her. Small wonder, then, that Maria's youngest child Johannes (the tenth and final von Trapp child, born in 1939) has publicly stated that his "complex" mother's exceedingly unhappy childhood had left her with "insecurities that plagued her all of her life."
Figuring that education could provide a way out of her unhappy circumstances, Maria worked to put herself through Vienna's State Teacher's College for Progressive Education. It was during those years that she began to spend increasing amounts of time wandering in the beautiful, mountainous Austrian countryside. These solitary journeys provided Maria with the sense of freedom and peace missing from her childhood, while also providing an ideal outlet for her boundless energy.
And energy she had. To burn. It's easy for audiences accustomed to the Maria von Trapp found in the figures of the trim Julie Andrews, or the petite Mary Martin who originated the role of Maria in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music, to forget the fact that Maria was a substantial woman whose sturdy frame proved ideal for her mountainside forays. Forthright, indeed blunt, and the possessor of a booming laugh, Maria remained a formidable figure well into her dotage, a no-nonsense, frequently tough woman full of boundless energy who registered as a rounder, Austrian version of Katharine Hepburn and her all-American no-nonsense practicality.
As to how Maria's life morphed from an unhappy childhood to that of a would-be nun, the answer, in Maria's view, lay in divine revelation. While still a teenager, she had joined a hiking group, and it was her suggestion that the club hike high into the Alps, to regions where snow remained even in summer. Surrounded by the literally breathtaking scenery, "suddenly it occurred to me—all this—God gives to me. What can I give him? I decided to go into a convent, which has perpetual enclosure."
It was this revelation, combined with a Palm Sunday service she attended while studying at college, that led her to the abbey upon graduation. Expecting nothing more from the Palm Sunday service than a chance to hear the music of Bach that she loved, Maria found something quite different: "Now I had heard from my uncle that all of these Bible stories were inventions and old legends, and that there wasn't a word of truth in them. But the way this man talked just swept me off my feet. I was completely overwhelmed."
Convinced that she would find the love and security so lacking in her everyday life within abbey walls, Maria traveled to Salzburg. Located between Munich and Vienna, and famed as the home of Mozart, Salzburg had existed as an independent church state for more than one thousand years before joining Austria in 1816. Perhaps with this history in mind, upon her arrival Maria, in an extraordinary display of naïveté, simply asked the first policeman she encountered for the name of the strictest abbey in all of Salzburg. "Nonnberg Abbey," the answer came back.
Founded in A.D. 719, Nonnberg ("Nun Mountain"), which is situated on an overlook outside of the city proper, was more than the strictest abbey in the area—it was also the oldest. After walking to the abbey, Maria announced that she wished to join the novitiate, and after meeting with the Mother Abbess, found herself beginning the life of a novice at age nineteen. Says youngest child Johannes: "She did everything 100 percent. Having found a religious belief in her late teens—after an hours' long confession—she wanted to dedicate her life to God."
In her autobiography, and of course in both the stage and film versions of The Sound of Music, that nineteen-year-old novice stands front and center throughout the life of the entire abbey. Such starlike stature may well have been embellished in recall by Maria herself. In an amusing anecdote recounted by Sound of Music screenwriter Ernest Lehman, when Lehman and the film's then-director William Wyler went to speak with the Mother Abbess in 1963 (with the aim of gathering background information about Maria), the Mother Abbess, in Lehman's recall, reacted as if to say, "Who's Maria?" "The Reverend Mother hardly remembered who Maria was ... I think Maria exaggerated her importance at the Abbey enormously in the story."
In fact, the mention of Maria von Trapp could still cause decidedly mixed emotions on the part of Salzburg natives, with some going so far as to deny she had ever entered the novitiate at Nonnberg. Peter Husty, the head of exhibitions at the Salzburg Museum, went on record as suggesting that Maria's time at the abbey may have been grossly exaggerated, or perhaps even nonexistent, calling her relationship to Nonnberg Abbey "a little strange." Pointing out that she had been neither a teacher nor a nun, he emphasized the fact that unlike other novitiates, Maria left no trace at the abbey: no record of her birth, her mother, or her father; in his words she resembled "a will of the wisp." (Husty's viewpoint would seem undercut merely by the fact that when the family traveled to Salzburg in 1950, Maria held a personal reunion with the Mother Abbess.)
What was undoubtedly true, however, was that Maria was far more enthralled with the beautiful countryside outside of Salzburg than she was with life in the abbey. Possessed of great natural beauty, ringed by snowcapped mountains, and nestled in Austria's lake district, Salzburg, or more particularly the surrounding environs, provided a setting in which Maria immediately felt at home. Escaping to the mountains every chance she had, Maria first bent and then broke the strict rules of the abbey.
Excerpted from The Sound of Music Story by Tom Santopietro. Copyright © 2015 Tom Santopietro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Very Good Place to Start,
2. How Do You Solve a Problem Like ...,
3. Broadway and Rodgers and Hammerstein,
4. 20th Century-Fox—Going, Going, Almost Gone,
5. The Sweet Smell of Ernest Lehman,
6. Six Characters in Search of a Director,
7. Designing The Sound of Music: Fantasy, Reality, and Fourteen Show Tunes,
8. Julie Doolittle Poppins von Trapp,
9. Captain Georg von Trapp,
10. A Captain with Seven Children: What's So Fearsome About That?,
11. Completing the Cast,
12. Let's Start at the Very Beginning,
13. Salzburg, Rain, and Nature's Revenge,
14. Song and Dance,
15. Back Home: Hooray for Hollywood,
16. Sneak Preview,
18. World Premiere,
19. Critics on the Warpath,
20. The One-Billion-Dollar Question,
21. The Academy Awards,
22. The International Phenomenon,
23. Julie Andrews: Queen of Hollywood,
24. Life After The Sound of Music,
25. Sorry-Grateful: The Story of the Real-Life Von Trapps,
26. Fifty Years of Statistics,
27. The Sing-Along Phenomenon,
28. New Iterations,
29. Full Circle,
30. And in the End ...,
About the Author,
Also by Tom Santopietro,