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The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music celebrates the 40th anniversary of its release this year. According to "The Hills Still Resonate" by Todd S. Purdum (New York Times, 30 May 2005),

...40 years ago this Memorial Day weekend, "The Sound of Music" was not just the summer movie of 1965. It was the spring, fall and winter one, too, and in inflation-adjusted dollars, it remains the third-biggest-grossing film of all time at the domestic box office...
The movie was nominated for ten Oscars and won five, including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Wise, who died recently (see "Robert Wise, Film Director, Dies at 91" [New York Times, 15 September 2005]). Nope, sorry, Julie Andrews didn't win an Oscar that year.

But did you know that it all started with a book? If you'd like to know how different the movie was from the musical and the book, check out the "research paper" that I wrote at the the age of 17. I've made a few corrections in punctuation and documentation, but I have not made significant changes.

The Sound of Music: Book to Musical to Movie

In 1949, a critic said that The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was “a book that [would] appeal to the general public.” [1] Little did she know that nine years later, inspired by the success of a German film based on the book, a director would bring Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lindsay and Crouse, and Mary Martin together in a Broadway musical [2] that would appeal so much to the general public it became “the fourth longest-running musical in the history of the New York theater.” [3] And this critic could also hardly have known that sixteen years after the book was published, the film based on the Broadway musical would be so appealing to the general public that not only would it run for more than a year in one city, [4] The Sound of Music would become the second top-grossing film of all time (next only to Gone With the Wind), making so much money the trade press referred to it “...(very respectfully) as The Sound of Money.” [5]

Nevertheless, it would be hard to pinpoint exactly what brought about all these success stories, for the movie was hardly the musical recorded on film, and the musical was also hardly the book set to music. Each had its own weaknesses and strengths, and appealed to its respective audience in a different way. And although much was lost when The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into a musical—which in turn was adapted for the screen—The Sound of Music more than compensated for these deficiencies.

Book to Musical

Much was lost when The Story of the Trapp Family Singers became The Sound of Music, the musical. For one thing, there were already nine Trapp children, not seven, by the time the Trapps left Austria. This can be attributed to the fact that the Captain and Maria were married even before the Nazis invaded Austria. The Baroness Elsa Schrader, who was in fact Princess Yvonne in the book, was not a Nazi supporter—which, in the musical, was the reason given for the Captain’s breaking his engagement with her. The engagement, in reality, was broken because the Captain discovered that he was in love, not with the Princess, but with Maria. But if a case for authenticity and faithfulness to the book were to be made, these differences, and many more like it, would all be minor in light of the fact that the musical accounted for only one half of the book. [6]

As was the case with All the President’s Men which “ended halfway through the Woodward and Bernstein effort,” [7] the musical ended halfway through Maria Augusta Trapp’s book. But while the film on Watergate captured the essence of the characters, this was not so with the musical. The Trapp Family Singers were not just a singing family, theirs was a family which was “half orchestra and half religious community.” [8] And this was not more evident than in the latter half of the book where the author related their experiences in America, revealing just how much they were praying all the time.

Musical to Movie

A lot was also lost when The Sound of Music, the musical, became The Sound of Music, the movie, but not as much as when the book was turned into a musical. Basically, it was still the same as the musical except for a few songs that were deleted altogether, and the movement of a few other songs earlier or later than they were sung in the musical. But the most important deletion to which lovers of Hammerstein’s lyrics would most certainly have objected was the loss of Mary Martin’s favorite, where she sings, “A bell is no bell till you ring it/ A song is no song till you sing it/ And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay/ Love isn’t love till you give it away.” [9]

Such loss is not uncommon when adaptations are made from other media. They are to be expected, for what will work in a book will not always work on stage or on screen. Objections voiced by those who loved the book or the stage version or the movie (in case a book or stage version is made based on the movie) should not be taken too seriously. “...Such objections are always raised when literature is used as a basis for a musical play... no doubt Charles Gounod was more than once informed that Faust was a vulgarization of Goethe.” [10]

But in spite of what was lost, the two versions of The Sound of Music were huge successes. And since this could not have been due to what was lost, it must have had something to do with what was added. Not the least of which was the sound of music.

The Sound of Music

The importance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contribution cannot be overemphasized for “the very sound of music [was] the heart and substance and often even the plot itself.” [11] The Trapp family was a family of singers and although the reader travels with them as they tour America, and shares in their initial unsuccessful ventures and eventual triumphs, the reader never gets to listen to them and discover for himself why “no group travels farther and gives more performances than the Trapp Family Singers.” [12] True, the songs written were “entirely new music and not... songs from the Trapp family’s repertoire,” [13] but then they did contribute greatly to an appreciation of the Trapps as a singing family. And, as most everyone who’s ever hummed “Do-Re-Mi” knows, they didn’t exactly turn off the audience either.

What the sound of music was for the adaptation from book to musical, the Austrian Alps were for the adaptation from musical to movie. Whereas the musical merely suggested mountains, The Sound of Music, the movie, actually brought the viewer to Austria. “From the opening shot the... film, whose exteriors were photographed in and around Salzburg, is a thing of great visual beauty.” [14] There is nothing more awe-inspiring than Julie Andrews singing of the hills with “exteriors of breathtaking loveliness and utmost authenticity... [and] the full grandeur of grass-covered Alps and sudden valleys” [15] looming above and below. And when the family leaves to climb every mountain on their way to freedom, “the sun-drenched emerald of wind-swept mountain tops... conveys not only the look of the landscape, but the very smell and feel of the warm and bracing air.” [16] Thus, as in All the President’s Men, letting “the audience supply their eventual triumph.” [17]

From book to musical to movie, changes were made. Changes that could hardly have been avoided, for no audience would have sat through a stage version of the whole of Maria Augusta Trapp’s book. Rolf and Liesl’s relationship, though fictional, was also necessary, bringing Maria and Liesl closer to each other and setting up the climax as well. Changes will always be made for as long as there are books to turn into movies, movies to turn into plays, plays to turn into musicals, and movies to turn into books. “What matters is not what [was] lost, but what [was] retained and what [was] created out of that.” [18]


[1] Helen E. Bush, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Library Journal, 15 December 1949, 1908.
[2] “Mary, Not Contrary,” Newsweek, 30 November 1959, 33.
[3] Abe Laufe, Broadway’s Greatest Musicals (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1973) 252.
[4] Laufe, 252.
[5] Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1968) 176.
[6] Maria Augusta Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (New York: Image Books, 1957) 10-126.
[7] William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York: Warner Books, 1983) 324.
[8] Katherine Bregy, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Catholic World, January 1950, 319.
[9] “Mary, Not Contrary,” 32-33.
[10] Clive Barnes, “Introduction to Fiddler on the Roof,” 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre (New York: Crown Publishers, 1969) 465.
[11] “Mary, Not Contrary,” 32.
[12] “Family Life in Vermont,” Time, 18 July 1949, 46.
[13] Laufe, 247.
[14] Moira Walsh, “The Sound of Music,” America, 13 March 1965, 374-75.
[15] Arthur Knight, “Mary Poppins in Salzburg,” Saturday Review, 20 March 1965, 36.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Goldman, 235.
[18] Barnes, 465.

Category: Books and Movies, About Vonjobi

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