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Caught in a Trapp

The 46th anniversary of the Broadway opening of The Sound of Music inspires Filichia to read Maria Trapp's memoir. logo
Last week, the 40th anniversary edition of The Sound of Music movie was released. Today, we're marking the 46th anniversary of the show's opening on Broadway -- and that occasion inspired me to read the source material for both ventures: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria Augusta Trapp. (Note: No "Von" on the cover.) I plunge in and immediately find, instead of a foreword, "The Chapter Before the First." That sounds a tad pretentious, but what it contains is both interesting and musical.

Maria recalls when 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 -- the flibbertigibbet, will-o'-the-wisp clown that she was -- decided to pull the bell's rope and blurted out, "I wish I could become a writer, too, after I'm 40." That's when her companion told her the legend that if anyone makes a wish while ringing the bell, it'll come true -- as long as the ringer doesn't know the legend in advance. Maria didn't, and here's the book that was published when she was 42, in 1949.

Many have criticized Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein II for making The Sound of Music a sticky-sweet show; but they avoided opening the musical with the scene described above, didn't they? After reading the book up to the point that covers the musical's time frame -- the first 142 of its 352 pages -- I'd say that the collaborators could have made it much sweeter. For all who claim that The Sound of Music is actually an operetta, may I guide you to the scene where Maria arrives? The Captain gives her "a warm and hearty handshake" as the housekeeper pours a glass of wine and says, "Welcome, welcome, and may you never have a successor." Now, if Rodgers and Hammerstein really wanted to write an operetta, they would have made this moment a glass-clinking song.

Maria Augusta tells us that she was primarily hired to watch a bedridden Trapp child named -- yes! -- Maria. Aren't you proud of R&H for not making Big Maria visit Little Maria's sickbed, where she'd sing a song called "Maria's My Name, Too?" As for the Captain, he (surprise!) would "shower the children with presents and surprises," which would have made for another treacly scene. However, he does use a whistle to call the seven kids, whose names the collaborators changed to protect the audience. Johanna, Martina, and (needless to say) Maria are names that "sing," but Agathe, Rupert, and Werner aren't -- and we would have thought Hedwig wasn't, either, until a few years ago.

These kids are well beyond Do-Re-Mi basics when Maria Augusta arrives. One has already taken piano lessons. But Maria does sit down one night to encourage them to sing "Silent Night" while she plays guitar. When the captain unexpectedly appears, one of Maria's strings breaks. (How melodramatic that would have been in the show!) But Maria and the kids go on undaunted. Writes Maria, "We sang all 22 verses." (And you thought "Do-Re-Mi" went on forever!) How about the real-life scene in which Maria wants to leave but the housekeeper breaks her leg? (Shades of 42nd Street!) Now, Maria must stay and assume her duties; so, for guidance, she reads The Golden Book for Housewives. I can sure see Mary Martin scurrying around the kitchen, making many mistakes and much hilarity, but that would have been cheap humor.

Maria doesn't use curtains to make the kids' play clothes; they're freely given by the Captain as Christmas gifts. Maybe Hammerstein got the idea from seeing a show by his protégé Stephen Sondheim: Gypsy, which only a few months earlier had Rose making her kids' clothes from a hotel's bedspreads. (As Hammerstein had written eight years earlier, "By your pupils, you'll be taught.") In the book, Christmas takes up an entire chapter. Aren't R&H to be commended for avoiding a sentimental scene set on that holiday?

The captain's would-be second wife -- Yvonne, not Elsa -- is even colder than she is in the show. (She tells a Trapp daughter, when seeing the kids in their new play clothes, that "A decent lady doesn't wear pants.") Yvonne makes her first appearance on page 57 and, a mere one page later, she's telling Maria that "The captain is in love with you." Maria leaves but first consults a priest, then the Mistress of Novices, then the Mother Abbess. Later, the Mother tells Maria, "I assembled the community...we prayed to the Holy Ghost and we held council, and it became clear to us that it is the Will of God that you marry the captain." (Gee, that was easy!)

Of course, the captain is otherwise engaged; but, as Maria tells the story, the truth would have made for a sweeter and sillier musical scene. When Maria returns, the Captain sends the kids over to ask if she "likes" him. Once they report back, he comes in while she's on a ladder cleaning a chandelier and asks her to marry him, almost causing her to fall off the ladder. She tells the Captain the nuns' decision in a line that I'm putting down exactly the way Maria wrote it: "Th-they s-s-said I have to m-m-m-marry you." Bless the collaborators for excising this moment!

And so, Maria and Georg were married on November 26, 1927. Notice that this was long before the rise of Hitler. The Trapps didn't leave the country for 11 more years, when many of the children were no longer children; Rupert, in fact, had already graduated from medical school! So R&H, and L&C for that matter, did lay it on thick here. Their real cheat, though, was having the Trapps escape by climbing ev'ry mountain and fording ev'ry stream. Maria makes it clear that, to get to America, they simply took a train and an ocean liner.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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