Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sound of Music - How it came to be

Mary Rodgers Guettel (right) and Alice Hammerstein Mathias — the daughters of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II — stand on the terrace of the Guettel home overlooking Manhattan's Central Park.
Oct 11, 2008 Toronto Star

Honestly I swear it is pure coincidence that two Toronto newspapers have articles in them on the same day about the SOUND OF MUSIC. I realise this specific article has nothing to do with books, but The Sound of Music is my favourite musical movie. I wonder when Julie Andrews is going to write her autobiography? Christopher Plummer's autobiography review is two posts below this one.

NEW YORK–Yes, the hills are alive with the sound of music, but everybody has a slightly different memory of just how that glorious melody came to fill the air.

This Wednesday night, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, the North American premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian's new production of The Sound of Music will be presented by David Mirvish, and it promises to be one of the major theatre events of the year.

The London version of this same production, which opened in 2007, has been a giant hit, which is not surprising for a show that has proved to be internationally the biggest title for Rodgers and Hammerstein productions.

The 1965 film version is also one of the most popular movies of all time and ever since the stage version made its debut in 1959, it's been playing every night somewhere in the world.

But how did it all start? And what made this particular show so durable and endearing?

The original four creators – Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse – are long since gone, but three bright and opinionated women who were there at the time of the show's creation still carry the flame – each in her own particular way.

Two of them – Mary Rodgers Guettel and Alice Hammerstein Mathias, daughters of the songwriters – have gathered for lunch with Bert Fink, the executive vice-president of R&H productions, at the elegant Guettel home overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. Anna Crouse – the widow of one of the librettists – checks in by phone (she's temporarily sidelined by a hip injury).

Mary brings a unique perspective to her examination of the period, because in 1959, for the only time in history, a father and daughter were competing for the Best Musical Tony Award, with her Once Upon a Mattress ultimately losing out to her father's The Sound of Music.

"You know," she says, surprised at the memory, "I don't think we ever discussed the competition. I guess we were too busy at the time to worry about that."

Then she casts a sympathetic look across the table at Alice. "And by then, Ockie was very sick."

Ockie – Oscar Hammerstein II's nickname – had not been feeling well during 1959. Surgery that summer for stomach ulcers was actually for a cancerous tumour, which proved to be inoperable.

"Though they hid the truth from Oscar," wrote Rodgers in his 1975 biography, Musical Stages, "the doctors told his family – and Dorothy and me – that he had cancer."

Actually, the cone of silence was smaller than that, and the truth finally surfaces nearly 50 years later over a polite, sunlit lunch.

"Your mother and father heard about his being ill before we did," says Alice pointedly to Mary.

"Really?" replies Mary, in genuine surprise.

"And it made us angry," says Alice, laying her cards on the table.

There's a long, uncomfortable pause.

Mary tries to redeem the moment with her unique mixture of empathy and wit.

"`I honestly didn't know that,' said Mary with her mouth open.

And in that instant of reconciliation, the difference between the two women becomes clear. To Mary, the period of The Sound of Music is associated with her own greatest hit, Once Upon a Mattress.

Yet to Alice, it represented the loss of a father she loved dearly, but one who she didn't know was leaving until it was almost too late.

"I remember going to a preview performance in New York," says Alice softly, "and he couldn't be there because he was too sick.

"When they sang that song `An Ordinary Couple,' I couldn't stop the tears from flowing down my face. I had friends with me and I couldn't tell them why."

How did the show ever come to happen? That's where Anna Crouse is so useful, not only for her own razor-sharp memory, but also because her husband, Russel, kept impeccable diaries.

"Producer Leland Hayward approached Russel and Howard with three ideas: a musical of Gone With the Wind, a musical based on Gypsy Lee's autobiography and a musical based on the Trapp Family Singers.

"To this day, I think they chose the right one."

At first, the show was going to be a straight play with authentic Austrian folk songs worked in, but Anna recalls Russel feeling "that we needed something a little more Broadway to spice it up."

So they took their idea to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were so taken with it that Rodgers insisted, "We won't write one song, we'll write them all."

Lindsay and Crouse agreed, the only problem being that R&H were involved with their current show, Flower Drum Song. Everyone, including Broadway supernova Mary Martin, who was committed to playing Maria von Trapp, agreed to wait.

Flower Drum Song opened Dec. 1, 1958, and The Sound of Music followed on Broadway Nov. 19, 1959. That's an amazingly short period of time in which to create one of the major hits of the musical theatre, and even the daughters of the men who wrote the score marvel at it.

"I don't know if father was aware he was racing against time," wonders Alice, "or if this was just something he felt he had to say." Hammerstein passed away Aug. 23, 1960.

"The songs were so good," recalls Mary.

"When I heard them, coming after those shows of theirs that didn't make it, like Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream," says Alice, "I remember thinking `Oh, thank God, they've got a hit!'"

But why does this sentimental show, never a favourite of critics, hit the right chords with audiences every time? Mary shakes her head sagely. "That was what our fathers did so well. To take romances and make them into something that you so desperately wanted to have come true."

"We were watching a run-through in Toronto the other week," volunteers Fink, "and we got to the scene where the Baron finally reconnects with his children. I heard this loud sniffling sound, and I turned around to realize it was David Mirvish, weeping openly."

"A lot of people are just touched by it," says Alice simply. "The fact that it was set during the Anschluss (the Nazi annexation of Austria) adds another even more powerful dimension to it."

Her eyes seem very far away. "My father sent me to Austria in the 1930s to go to boarding school. And everyone gave us these little spidery pins to wear. We did. They were swastikas. At the time, we had no idea what they meant.

"And they would tell us all to say `Heil, Hitler!' when we met each other on the street. And we did it, but we never knew why. Oh God, we never knew."

"When the Nazis took over," explains Fink, "the von Trapps took a while to reach the breaking point. One of their sons declined the opportunity to be a Nazi doctor, Baron von Trapp turned down a military commission.

"But when they refused to sing at Hitler's 50th birthday celebration, their friends suggested they leave the country as soon as possible."

And that was the true beginning of a show that still has power over us nearly 50 years after its creation.

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