Fifty years ago this year, "The Sound of Music" was released and became an almost-instantaneous film classic. As it has passed from generation to generation over the years, it has become one of the most beloved films of all time. In honor of this momentous anniversary, let's dive into the history of The Sound of Music on stage, screen and television.
The beginning of The Sound of Music's history begins with a real-life story. Maria Augusta Trapp, born Maria Augusta Kutschera, was born in Vienna in 1905. She was orphaned at age seven and was placed under the care of an abusive uncle, an experience that helped create her rebellious spirit. Though she had largely shunned religion as a result of her uncle's influence, her love of music drew her to cathedrals, and in 1923, she decided to become a postulant (a sort of nun in training). In 1926, Maria was hired as a teacher to one of seven children belonging to Georg Johannes von Trapp, a widower and World War I veteran. Maria came to care for all of von Trapp's children. Von Trapp saw in Maria a new mother for his children and asked her to marry him. They were wed Nov. 27, 1927. However, Maria's reason for agreeing to be wed was slightly less romantic than it is depicted in the musical. Speaking about it many years later, she said, "I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children."
Financial troubles in the mid-1930s forced the family to move into the top floor of their large estate and rent out the nicer rooms downstairs. One of the tenants was Franz Wasner, an ordained priest and professor at the seminary. Wasner was musically trained and especially well-versed in choral church music. He heard the children sing at a service held in a small chapel on the von Trapp estate and decided to coach them into more sophisticated arrangements featuring four-part harmonies. Under his direction, the von Trapp Family Singers became quite adept at singing and won a prize at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936. This newfound success and popularity gave life to a tour soon after. In fact, it was a performance engagement that took them out of a Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, a slightly less romantic reality than the musical's depiction of a covert mountain crossing by foot. In their absence, their abandoned home was made the headquarters of Heinrich Himmler, an infamous Nazi commander. The family eventually settled in the United States, where their descendants continue to run a hotel in Vermont.
Maria wrote a memoir in 1949 entitled "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers," which was adapted into two German films, "Die Trapp-Familie" in 1956 and "Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika" in 1958. Broadway director Vincent J. Donehue saw a screening of "Die Trapp-Familie" and immediately saw huge potential for an American stage adaptation. He urged Broadway legend and personal friend Mary Martin to see the film, as he believed it could be her next vehicle. After Martin saw a screening, she agreed and set to work at making it happen.
Martin immediately contacted friends Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who are perhaps most famous today for their book of the musical Anything Goes. They were originally planning to adapt the story as a play featuring songs from the real Trapp Family Singers' repertoire, but in fairly short order it was decided that the property should become a musical with a full-length original score. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were chosen to supply the songs. The Sound of Music had odd origins for Rodgers and Hammerstein, as they did not supply the initial idea and the project came with book writers attached. It is because of this that The Sound of Music became the only Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical to not feature a book by Oscar Hammerstein II, but rather by Lindsay and Crouse.
The real-life story of the von Trapps was altered somewhat in its journey to the stage. The timeline of events was shifted to be closer to World War II to heighten the drama of the story. Meanwhile, Georg von Trapp is depicted as a stern taskmaster while Maria is the free spirit that comes in and loosens him up, but this was the exact opposite of the real-life Georg and Maria.
The names and ages of the von Trapp children also were all changed. Most notably, the character of Liesel and the sub-plot concerning Liesel and Rolfe were invented completely by Lindsay and Crouse for the stage adaptation.
Perhaps the most dramatic change concerned the role of Father Franz Wasner. In some ways, Wasner is represented on stage in the character of Max Detweiler, but his real-life role as music director and conductor to the family was mostly shifted to the story of Maria. The von Trapp family protested when they learned of this change, but were told they had the choice between Wasner or Maria; Lindsay and Crouse did not believe it viable to use both figures in their dramatic adaptation.
The Broadway production of The Sound of Music opened Nov. 16, 1959 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Though not a unanimous success with critics, the production became a hit with audiences, going on to a four and a half year run of 1,443 performances. It was directed by Vincent J. Donehue and starred Mary Martin, the duo who had gotten the ball rolling on the property to begin with. Theodore Bikel, an Austrian-born actor and singer, took on the role of Georg von Trapp. Brian Davies, who went on to originate Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was the original Rolf, and Jon Voight played the role as a replacement later in the run. Nancy Dussault, who would go on to later portray the Witch in Into the Woods on Broadway, was a replacement Maria. Producers of the Broadway production included the legendary Leland Hayward and Richard Halliday, Mary Martin's husband.
The production fared well at the 1960 Tony Awards, going home with statues for Best Actress (Mary Martin), Conductor and Musical Director (Frederick Dvonch), Featured Actress (Patricia Neway), Scenic Design (Oliver Smith) and Best Musical. Take a look at the 1959 Opening Night Playbill to The Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein II's last Broadway show, in the Vault.
20th Century Fox bought the movie rights to The Sound of Music in 1960 for a then-record sum of one and a half million dollars, but it remained in development limbo through several years of expensive failures. With the failure of "Cleopatra" in 1963, Fox was desperate for a big hit, and The Sound of Music was suddenly on its way to the silver screen at last.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, famous for his brilliant screenplays to "Sweet Smell of Success," "Sabrina" and "West Side Story," set about working on a screenplay adaptation. In addition to cutting down the sentimentality of the stage show, Lehman decided to make several rather dramatic departures from the musical's existing structure. In the stage musical, Maria sings "The Lonely Goatherd" to calm the children when they are frightened by a thunderstorm, while Lehman used this song as a marionette performance piece that Maria performs with the children later in the plot. "My Favorite Things," sung on stage by Mother Abbess to soothe Maria as she prepares to look after the von Trapp children, became the number Maria sings to the children in the thunderstorm. "Do Re Mi" was moved to a later point in the story, making room for a new sub-plot in which the von Trapp children initially resist Maria as their new governess. On stage, "Do Re Mi" is sung in the von Trapp house shortly after Maria arrives. Meanwhile, two songs sung by Max and Elsa in the Broadway production, "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive," were deleted altogether, though the latter appears in the background as an instrumental piece played at the party.
The movie also got two completely new songs. "Something Good," the love duet between Maria and Captain von Trapp, replaced the Broadway score's "An Ordinary Couple." "I Have Confidence," which takes place in the movie as Maria travels from the Abbey to the von Trapp home, was added as an altogether new idea not previously present in the stage plot. Notably, "I Have Confidence" took the melody of its introduction from the introduction to the title song, unused in the film. Both of these new songs featured music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers as Oscar Hammerstein II had passed away in 1960, making "Edelweiss" the last lyric he was ever to write. Luckily, Rodgers had cut his teeth on lyric writing in creating the five new songs written for the 1962 film re-make of "State Fair."
Though some actresses (such as Doris Day and Shirley Jones) were tested for the role of Maria, the consensus amongst the creative team on the movie was that Julie Andrews should play the part. Though she had filmed "Mary Poppins," it had not yet been released, giving the team a slight hesitation at not having yet seen Andrews on screen. They arranged for a screening of some of the footage from "Mary Poppins," and quickly determined that Andrews was indeed the perfect choice. While reticent to take on another nanny role, Andrews decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up and accepted.
Actors such as Sean Connery and Yul Brynner were tested for the role of Captain von Trapp, but it was Christopher Plummer who ended up taking the role. Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker and Peggy Wood filled out the cast as Max, Elsa and Mother Abbess respectively. Marni Nixon, famous for dubbing the singing voices for several major roles in movie musicals, appears on screen as Sister Sophia. The film's Liesel, Charmian Carr, went on to introduce such songs as "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World" in the 1966 television musical "Evening Primrose," with a score by Stephen Sondheim and teleplay by James Goldman.
The film, with its incredible performances and lush Austrian settings, was released in 1965 and went on to become one of the most successful and beloved films of all time. As of 2011, it had grossed $286 million internationally. Adjusted for inflation, it's the most successful movie musical ever made, the third highest-grossing film released in the United States and the fifth highest-grossing film internationally. More recently, continued love for the film has spawned several sing-a-long screenings, in which audiences are invited to raise their own voices along with the movie's cast as the lyrics are projected on screen. Many fans have taken the occasion of these screenings to arrive in Sound of Music-themed costumes.
The immense success of the film version of course led to increased popularity in The Sound of Music on stage as well. Shortly after the show opened on Broadway, a West End production opened in 1961, which enjoyed a 2,385 performance run. Numerous touring, stock, amateur and high school productions all over the world followed. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which handles performance rights for stage productions in North America, estimates an average of over 500 productions every year.
The first major professional revival came in London in 1981, starring Petula Clark as Maria. This production was the first to incorporate some of the changes made for the film. "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good" were added, and "My Favorite Things" was moved to the slot in the story that it appears in the film.
1998 saw a Broadway revival, directed by Susan H. Schulman and starring Rebecca Luker. Michael Siberry appeared as Captain von Trapp, Patti Cohenour portrayed Mother Abbess, Jan Maxwell played Elsa and Fred Applegate was Max Detweiller. Meanwhile, in the ensemble was a then-unknown 19-year-old actress named Laura Benanti, who also understudied the role of Maria. Later in the run, she took over the role of Maria full-time, and a star was born. Michael Siberry was notably replaced by Richard Chamberlain. The production ran a year and a half at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld, home to Kinky Boots), and was nominated for Best Revival at the 1998 Tony Awards.
As with the 1981 West End revival, this production employed many of the changes made for the film production. "I Have Confidence" was used, while "Something Good" again replaced "An Ordinary Couple." "My Favorite Things" was also used in the thunderstorm scene between Maria and the children as it was in the film. However, "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It" were restored.
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron produced a landmark live television production of The Sound of Music for NBC Dec. 5, 2013. The telecast starred Carrie Underwood as Maria, Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Laura Benanti as Elsa and Christian Borle as Max. Jessica Molaskey, Christiane Noll and Elena Shaddow appeared as nuns, and Kristine Nielsen appeared as the housekeeper Frau Schmidt. The production was directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford.
This new television production returned mostly to the 1959 stage version of the script. "My Favorite Things" was sung in its original position, as was "The Lonely Goatherd." "I Have Confidence" was not used, though "Something Good" did once again replace "An Ordinary Couple." "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It" were both performed as part of the telecast.
The casting of Carrie Underwood drew criticism from both fans and critics before and after the telecast, but the broadcast nevertheless scored incredible ratings. An estimated 18.62 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched program of the evening. The success of the project led to NBC's broadcast of "Peter Pan Live" Dec. 4, 2014, and the announcement of a forthcoming live musical telecast for 2015 as well. Here in 2015, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the film adaptation of "The Sound of Music." It is being commemorated with a theatrical re-release presented by Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events, a new Blu-ray, DVD and digital release and a new soundtrack including never-before-released tracks. With the amount of love for this film 50 years after its release, it is easily one of the most enduring films ever created, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. I'll see you in 2065 when we celebrate the centennial!