STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers With the first genuine Broadway revival of The Sound of Music soon to come our way, I decided to pick up my Dell paperback of "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers," which, the cover says, was "told by Maria Augusta Trapp." Though it resulted in "Over 60,000 copies sold at $5." it was "Now 50 cents!"

With the first genuine Broadway revival of The Sound of Music soon to come our way, I decided to pick up my Dell paperback of "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers," which, the cover says, was "told by Maria Augusta Trapp." Though it resulted in "Over 60,000 copies sold at $5." it was "Now 50 cents!"

What I love more about this "First Dell printing, February 1960" (10 weeks after the musical opened) is that at the bottom of the front cover is proudly written, "The dramatic, true story that inspired the new Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical, The Sound of Music, starring Mary Martin." And there's a picture of Mary's disembodied head, smiling away.

On the back cover, though, you see "Winner of the St. Francis De Sales Award." Look closer, and you'll see that the victory wasn't total; it was in the "Best Non-Fiction Book" category. To the best of my recollection, none of my favorite books has ever won this award. Even in the "Best Fiction Book" category.

Nevertheless, I plunged in -- and immediately found not a foreword, but "The Chapter before the First." Oh-oh, a little early to be that pretentious.

What it contained, though, was interesting -- and very musical. Maria Augusta recalls the time she was in Italy, walking around with a native who'd written a book after she'd turned 40. When they passed a bell-tower, Maria Augusta -- flibbertijibbet, will-o'-the-wisp, clown that she is -- decided to pulled the bell's rope, at the same moment that she blurted out, "I wish I could become a writer, too, after I'm 40." That's when her companion told her of the legend that if anyone makes a wish while ringing the bell, it'll come true -- as long as the ringer didn't know the legend in advance. Maria Augusta didn't, and here's the book that she first saw published in 1949. The first surprise is that Maria Augusta was a college graduate going for a masters, something you'd never think of the musical's Maria. Every now and then she shows sparks as a writer -- such as when she notes that, at the convent, the words "'Thy Will Be Done' were painted in faded, old-fashioned letters over the door on the whitewashed wall." That she sees them that way suggests she won't be a novice for long.

Nevertheless, the book isn't as good as the excellent musical.

Yes, I say, excellent. Someone should stick up for this musical that's weathered plenty of the heat these last 39 years. Right off the bat, the town's two biggest critics -- Atkinson of the Times, Kerr of the Trib -- respectively said, "disappointing" and "too sweet." Once the movie was a phenomenon, out came all those Sound of Mucus jokes. Now it's one of those classics that make many knee-jerk-react with an "Oh, Gawwwwwwd!"

Especially cynics. "I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don't feel so bad." "Climb every mountain, ford every stream," et al. Not for them.

Perfect, though, for Hammerstein, Lindsay, and Crouse, three optimistic wordsmiths. By the time Hammerstein sat down to write, every American knew his contention that "If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?" As for Lindsay and Crouse, after they wrote the valentine-sentimental Life with Father, with what did they follow it? Life with Mother.

Say what you will, the collaborators sure avoided one sticky-sweet trap. Maria Augusta tells us she was hired to watch the kids, yes, but one girl in particular, the sick, bedridden kid named -- yes -- Maria. Aren't you proud of them for not making Big Maria sing "Do-Re-Mi" to Little Maria ("That's my name, too!") in a sickbed?

Because Maria Augusta says that the "almost inseparable part of my life (was) my guitar," too bad The Sound of Music didn't start with her singing the title song while accompanying herself. Maria could take instrument in hand, sit, cross her legs, and give out with a haunting, solo, folksy Sound of Music. Maybe because Mary Martin couldn't play? Plunking out do-re-mi and the others is one thing. Faking to a long, mood-setting ballad that opens the show is another. (Does Rebecca Luker know how to play the guitar?)

The real Trapp kids were well beyond do-re-mi basics. One had already taken piano lessons. But Maria Augusta did sit down one night and encouraged them to sing, "Silent Night," a navy song they'd learned from their father -- who comes in and joins them. "Then," writes Maria Augusta, "we sang all 22 verses." (And you thought "Do Re Mi" went on for a while!)

The collaborators kept Maria Augusta's unfashionable clothes and "nuisance of a hat." The image of the captain being a man of the world, and his whistle. And though they retain the the musical-scale-perfect seven kids (five girls; two boys), their names were changed to protect the audience. Johanna, Martina, and (needless to say), Maria are names that "sing, but Agathe, Hedwig, Rupert, and Werner aren't.

Maria Augusta didn't use curtains to make the kids' playclothes; that was the Captain's cornerstone Christmas gift. Leads us to believe that the Sound of Music collaborators might have remembered a show'd they seen only a few months earlier: Gypsy, in which Rose makes her kids' clothes from the hotel's bedspreads. Well, we know that at least Hammerstein saw it, because Sondheim has often acknowledged that Hammerstein requested that applause-space be left for the Merm after "Rose's Turn."

Hammerstein's lyric ideas, though, were all his own. No one in the book mentions favorite things, a mountain, stream, or goatherd, be he lonely or popular.

One other important difference: The kids aren't total angels. "Rupert," Maria Augusta tells us, "had smoked in secret."

And while the captain's would-be second wife still plans to ship the kids off to boarding school, she is Yvonne, not Elsa, and she doesn't make her first appearance until page 57. A mere one page later, Yvonne is telling Maria Augusta that "The captain is in love with you."

Maria Augusta leaves, but first consults, not a nun, but a priest. Then the Mistress of Novices, then the Mother Abbess. From my reading, I thought that at every turn, no one -- no nun -- ever thought that that once the girl was out, that she'd ever come back. Maria Augusta seems to have missed the feeling I got, that they were frankly pretty happy to be rid of her.

So Maria Augusta and the captain are engaged and married. Maria Augusta gets pregnant, and delivers yet another daughter, Eleonore (sic), born in 1929.

Then the book gets boring. No conflict. Maria writes, often not more than in a travelogue style, about life in Austria. Eight pages is too much to tell us how the family celebrated Lent.

Have you noticed important ingredients missing? Not until 112 -- Rupert's already in med school -- are Hitler and the Nazis are even mentioned, and then only in passing. The big problem, introduced on 113, is that the Trapps' bank went bust, they're broke, and now everyone's got to pitch in and work together. Admirable, yes, and heartwarming, too, but not nearly as dramatic as the Nazi threat. What's more, The Sound of Music collaborators gave the Trapps a chance to stand up and fight for something more noble than going bankrupt. Again, for all the talk about R&H's sentimentality, they didn't succumb to a scene where the family fended off poverty as they whistled while they worked.

Notice, too, that there's no Liesl-and-Rolf romance. Understandable why Rodgers and Hammerstein put it in. Who better to deal with secondary lovers than the team that created Will and Ado Annie, Carrie and Enoch, Cable and Liat, Lun Tha and Tuptim?

Perhaps, in "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers," "Liesl" will get a Nazi boyfriend later who helps them. I'm still on page 113. Maria Augusta has just told Georg that "how else would we have found out what fine fellows the children are" had they not gone broke. She comes to the conclusion, "Aren't we lucky that we lost that money?"

Well, yes and no. Suddenly I'm thinking about not finishing "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers." But I'm sure going to see The Sound of Music.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com