Everyone knows how The Sound of Music ends: After narrowly escaping the Nazis, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer flee over the mountains with their seven children to the safety of verdant and neutral Switzerland. But what really happened on that ill-fated alpine adventure? Husband-and-wife composing team Frankie Johnson and Eric Thomas Johnson attempt to answer that question with their unauthorized parody sequel, The Hills Are Alive, now playing at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
The Johnsons presented The Hills Are Alive as part of Fringe NYC last year. They have since revised the show, adding a four-person orchestra and new choreography for the NYMF production. TheaterMania spoke to the Johnsons about The Hills Are Alive and how their version of events, however ridiculous, might not be quite as far-fetched as that of the 1965 film.
TheaterMania: What inspired you to write The Hills are Alive?
Frankie Johnson: We were talking about the movie and how silly the ending was, compared to what happened to the real family. Eric turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn't that make a funny musical, to pick up where the movie left off?'
TM: Was The Sound of Music a big part of your childhoods?
FJ: I grew up in Tennessee and they always showed it on TV at Thanksgiving. The attitude was, if you don't want to watch the football game, you can sit with your family and watch The Sound of Music.
Eric Thomas Johnson: I grew up in North Carolina and the same was true for me. Julie Andrews would be featured during the commercial breaks giving little bits of trivia. So it would drag into this four- or five-hour event.
TM: Why is this style of musical theater ripe for parody?
FJ: Ours is a parody of the movie specifically...except for the dream ballet. I've always loved the fact that there is such a thing as a dream ballet in a lot of those old musicals. So we have one of those.
ETJ: As a composer, an interesting aspect of The Sound of Music is that it is a very homogenized American view of what Austrian music would be. You can hear differences in each Rodgers and Hammerstein score — The King and I has a different sound than The Sound of Music — but there is a recognizable style. One of the things we played with in our show is infusing true Germanic elements along with a Richard Rodgers style. We have a song in the show called "Wiegenlied," which means "lullaby" in German. It's somewhat a parody of "Edelweiss," but it's in the style of a Franz Schubert lied. It has a classical sound to it, but lyrically it is poking fun at the fact that German culture for children is horribly frightening and a German lullaby would not necessarily be a comforting thing.
TM: So does the toothache-inducing sweetness of the film lend itself to this kind of dark commentary?
FJ: It's the saccharine nature of it. Anyone who grew up in a large family knows it's not perfect all the time, with everyone getting along...
TM: Wearing drapes and skipping through the mountains.
FJ: Right! And if you know the story of the real family, it wasn't like that at all.
ETJ: You have to consider when The Sound of Music was written — when it premiered on Broadway and when the film came out. Growing up, I always assumed it was a mid-'50s film, but it actually came out in 1965. The '60s weren't just about counter culture and hippies. There was also, what Nixon would dub "the silent majority," which made up so much of America. That The Sound of Music came out in 1965, when things were changing so much in America, it can almost be viewed as reactionary escapism.
TM: Frankie, you just mentioned the real von Trapp family. How were they different than their portrayal in the film?
FJ: Maria was this very domineering personality. She wasn't super-sweet Julie Andrews at all. It seems like the marriage between her and Captain von Trapp was one of convenience rather than true love. After they got to America and became a sensation, she wouldn't let some of the children leave the group. It's almost like she was the Joe Jackson of Austrian folk music. She wasn't just gumdrops and spoonfuls of sugar.
TM: What are you hoping audiences take away from this production?
Frankie: We call it a parody. It's really more accurate to call it an unauthorized sequel, like Dog Sees God. It's its own story. You don't have to be an expert on The Sound of Music to enjoy it. Sure there are inside jokes, but the story stands alone.
ET: We're building a small fan base. We have some people who've come to every production, including our cabaret at the Duplex. I'm excited to see what they'll take away from this incarnation. Now that we're at NYMF, we're able to realize elements that were trapped on the page before.
TM: Is that why you chose NYMF?
FJ: It seemed like the perfect fit. We had a great time at Fringe. This seems like the next logical step for us. It's specifically for musical theater, a more targeted audience.
ETJ: Fringe had such a great, loyal, wide audience. It's multidiscipline. NYMF is catered and targeted toward musical theater, and it has a lot of industry insiders who attend shows. Also, being at Signature Center is very exciting for our show.
Click here to listen to music from The Hills Are Alive: