Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Story of the Sound of Music

A young Maria Kutschera
Many people are aware of the name Maria Von Trapp. Having seen the film The Sound of Music—one of the most widely-seen films of all time—it is difficult to be completely unaware of the legacy this woman left behind.

But, as many should know, when Hollywood makes a film based on a true story, it is rare that the details are exactly true to life.

The real Maria Augusta Kutschera was born on January 26, 1905 in Vienna, Austria. Orphaned by age seven, Maria was reportedly a tomboy and maintained a mischievous streak all through her life. She nonetheless completed her education and became a postulant at Nonberg Abbey in Salzburg in 1923.

The real Von Trapp Family
Georg Von Trapp
Three years later, Maria was asked to privately tutor Maria Franziska von Trapp, one of seven children of widower Georg Johannes Von Trapp. In time, Maria began to care for the other children as well, and soon, Georg asked Maria to marry him. Having wished to always be a nun, Maria went back to the abbey where the Mother Abbess advised her to marry Georg. Maria did this mainly for the children, but later came to love her husband, who she would later remember as kind and handsome, but not as handsome as Christopher Plummer! She and Georg would have three more children together, raising the number of Trapp children to ten.

The Trapp Family Singers
The family faced financial hardship in 1935 as the bank that held their money failed. Their servants were let go, and they moved into smaller quarters in their home and rented out the rest of the rooms for some income. However, also during that year, they sang at a festival and became a popular touring musical sensation.

During the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, the Trapps objected to the ideals of the Nazi party and in 1938, despite Maria being pregnant with her third child, the Trapps went from Austria to Italy and finally immigrated to the United States, touring as the Trapp Family Choir and then as the Trapp Family Singers. They finally settled in a new home in Vermont. Georg died of lung cancer in 1947.

In 1949, after being persuaded into writing the story of her life, Maria published The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which would be followed by four more books about herself and her family published through 1972.

A still from The Trapp Family
The 1950s would bring new attention to the Trapp family as they recorded records for RCA and saw their lives dramatized by a German film company as Die Trapp-Familie (The Trapp Family) in 1956, and a sequel in 1958: Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (The Trapp Family in America). The actual Trapp Family Singers disbanded in 1957, though their descendants have continued to make appearances under the same name. Maria and three of her children went into missionary work, but would soon find their lives brought to even more public attention.

The German films had been quite successful, and an American company was looking into doing a remake with an English cast. The plans fell through, but it was suggested that the story be adapted into a Broadway musical. The play was written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and had an original score written by the famous team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and opened on Broadway November 16, 1959 as The Sound of Music.

The original cast of
The Sound of Music
As may be expected, the dramatization of the story took several liberties with fact. All of the Trapp children were renamed (likely to avoid confusion with two characters named Maria, and possibly to protect the privacy of the retired singers who were still living) and the story's timeline was compressed into a short time in the latter half of the 1930s, and none of Maria's pregnancies were included.

In the play, Maria is not an ideal asset to the Abbey, but the Mother Abbess sees potential in her anyway and sends her to be the governess for the von Trapp family's seven children. The strict Captain von Trapp calls everyone with a whistle and has forbid singing in his home, but this soon changes as Maria forms an immediate bond with the children by teaching them to sing.

As Maria and the children grow close and the Captain becomes closer with his children, Maria and the Captain strike up a subtle and unspoken romance, but he has a Baroness visiting who is more forward with her intentions to marry him. Feeling unsure of herself, Maria returns to the Abbey.

Maria is encouraged by the Mother Abbess to follow her heart, even if it is away from the Abbey, and soon she and the Captain address their feelings for each other and marry. However, as the Nazis annex Austria, the family evades their attempts to make the Captain fight for them. The changing nature of Austria is displayed in an original character named Rolf, suitor to the eldest daughter who joins and wholeheartedly supports the Nazis.

In a finale created for the play, the family sings at a concert, escaping after their win to the Abbey, where the nuns help hide them from the Nazis intent on taking the Captain to report for duty and also sabotage the Nazis' cars. Rolf spies the family, but upon seeing his love interest, declines to betray them to his lieutenant. The family escapes over the mountains away from their old home but to a new life together.

The play was a hit, despite being noted for its very sweet nature. The von Trapp family were actually not pleased with the liberties taken with their life story, and who could blame them? The story of how they fell on hard times and left their home land was very personal to them, and to have it exploited and fictionalized was not very flattering.

The Pratt Family Singers
In 1962, during a television special at Carnegie Hall, The Sound of Music received a parody in "The Pratt Family Singers," featuring a mother and father with an absurd number of sons with east European names and a daughter named Cynthia played by Carol Burnett. The mother was none other than one Julie Andrews, who would soon be cast to play Maria in a feature film adaptation of the musical alongside Christopher Plummer as Georg.

The film featured exterior locations in Salzburg, and during the filming, the real Maria visited and can even be seen in the background of one of the shots. Though she knew she had no creative control of the film, she was very kind and amiable to the cast and crew.
Maria's cameo in The Sound of Music

The movie's poster
The film managed to take out some of the sweetness of the play, but the story remained intact. Songs were rearranged, some dropped, some added. The script was largely rewritten to make the story more cinematic, but not more true to life. Maria does not have immediate rapport with the children in the film, but her friendship with them is built up over a few days and she teaches them to sing not in the villa, but outside in Salzburg. One particular note is that Rolf does call his lieutenant in this version.

The film has been very successful since its original run in 1965, winning six Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. It's since become a classic on television, home video and theatrical releases. A friend who is well-versed in musical theater mentioned that the movie is an example of the right way to do a stage to film adaptation.

Maria in her later years
The real Maria would later appear on Julie Andrews' television show in 1973 where she taught Julie how to yodel and sang the musical's song "Edelweiss" with her. She later died of heart failure in 1987.

The legacy of the Trapp Family Singers and Maria has largely been based around The Sound of Music in spinoffs of the movie and further productions of the play, including a 2013 live televised production for NBC starring Carrie Underwood as Maria.
Maria and the children in NBC's
The Sound of Music Live
Title card of Trapp Family Story

There is one further adaptation of Maria's story: the Japanese anime トラップ一家物語 (Torappu Ikka Monogatari, Trapp Family Story), which ran in 1991. It reportedly took several liberties in expanding the story into a 40-episode series.

The story of the Trapp family and The Sound of Music have struck a chord with people over the years in the story of a woman stepping in as a surrogate mother and eventually a stepmother, and how the family was not willing to back down in their beliefs in what was right, even if it meant losing their home. Perhaps it is well for us to remember the lessons it teaches.

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