I recently sat down with members of my family to watch the television special of The Sound of Music Live!, which was originally broadcast by NBC back in December 2013. The live performance featured an eclectic cast of well-known names from stage, screen and music, starring country singer Carrie Underwood in the iconic role of Maria and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp, alongside Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader, Christian Borle as Max Detweiler and Broadway legend Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess. All in all, we found it enjoyable to watch, despite acting that was so wooden in places the second little pig could have built himself ten stick houses! I know that the reviews weren’t overly favourable, with most of the criticism aimed towards Underwood, and in particular, her noticeable lack of acting experience, but the merits of the musical carried it through any questionable moments and it managed to bring in over 18 million viewers for NBC when it first aired.
The Sound of Music Live! is just one of many versions of the highly popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to have been created since the original Broadway production premièred in 1959. It was first seen here in the UK when it transferred into the West End in 1961, followed by revivals in 1981 and 2006 – the latter was the subject of TV casting show, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber searched for an unknown star to play the lead role of Maria in his forthcoming production. The show was won by Connie Fisher, who played the iconic role in Lloyd Webber’s revival at the London Palladium and also in the subsequent UK Tour. More recently, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre staged a critically acclaimed new production which ran there from 25th July – 14th September 2013, led by Michael Xavier and Charlotte Wakefield as Captain von Trapp and Maria respectively, and a new touring version, produced by Bill Kenwright and starring Stephen Houghton and Danielle Hope, just opened at the New Wimbledon Theatre on 30th March 2015.
Off-stage, the musical also spawned the much-loved 1965 film adaption which starred Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp and Julie Andrews in what may be her definitive role as Maria. This year marks the film musical’s fiftieth anniversary, and half a century later, its popularity shows no signs of waning; so what makes The Sound of Music such an enduring success?
There is no secret formula for success when it comes to musical theatre. Sometimes it can be as simple as being in the right place at the time, but the fate of any new production is inevitably reliant on many different variables in the end, from story and score to casting and staging. The Sound of Music has often been described in such terms as ‘sickly sweet’ or ‘ syrupy’, in reference to the tender romances and wholesome family sentiment of the show, and while no-one could deny that there is a definite vein of treacle running through it, it’s never done to excess, making the musical endearing to its audience rather than having them reach for the sick bags. It also has characters the audience can care about, though whether that’s due to how they were written or because they’re based on real people is up for debate. Perhaps most importantly, it has really great songs. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score is pure musical greatness, filled with catchy tunes that became instant classics and have permeated into everyday life, such as ‘My Favourite Things’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and ‘Eidelweiss’, among others.
The charm of The Sound of Music is just that; its charm. The musical is of course based on the true life memoir of Maria von Trapp, and could easily have become a historical and political vehicle that was a comment on the rise of Nazism in pre-war Austria. Instead it is an undeniably feel-good musical, and while it does indeed touch on this more serious side of the story, the overruling emotion is one of happiness and finding the joy in life. It relies on the story and the songs to carry it, and this is what makes people want to see it again and again. There are no extravagant special effects or a big, elaborate fight scene at the end to see it finish with a bang…it’s a musical of simplicity and sincerity about love of music and love itself, and one which draws comparisons with the equally wonderful Once The Musical in that respect.
These days, there is an over-abundance of popular films being turned into musicals, but The Sound of Music is one of those rarities which conquered the stage before the big screen. The film remains a classic today, and the stage musical continues to find an audience, both complimenting one another and working together to ensure that the love for the musical never dies. Well-written, well staged and with a memorable score, it stands as a great example of the importance of the material when it comes to musical theatre. Impressive effects and celebrity casting may bring in the crowds for a while, but to achieve long-lasting success, it all comes down to the material. The Sound of Music is a classic in the world of musical theatre for a reason, and I expect it to still be around in another fifty years’ time too.
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Tuesday 7th April 2015