Corny and Profound

The Sound of Music at 50


For Christmas one year, when I was in high school, my grandpa gave me the video of The Sound of Music. I was thrilled: my favorite movie, the one I’d loved since childhood, was mine to watch at will.

My cousin Mark, in his early twenties at the time, regarded my new tape with good-natured disdain. “That’s such a corny movie,” he said.

I froze in horror. “It is not corny!” I answered vehemently. Not my finest comeback, but outrage was making me inarticulate. We went a few rounds. Neither of us conceded any turf, so we left it at that. It was Christmas, after all.

But here’s the thing: in some deep secret part of myself, I knew that Mark was right. And now, twenty years later, I will freely admit it to the world. Yes, The Sound of Music is a very corny movie.

But it’s a corny movie that has profoundly shaped my life.

This year marks the fiftieth birthday of The Sound of Music. In November of 1959, the play opened on Broadway; six years later, the film version was released, to immense popular acclaim. My own acquaintance with the musical came in 1977, when I was four. That was the year that my mom took my sister Amy and me, along with our neighbors Becky and Doug and their mom, to see the film when it came to the local theatre.

A deep impression

The movie impressed us kids deeply. Back at home, Amy and Becky ran across the lawn twirling like juvenile Marias. I, by virtue of my age, had to be a Nazi storm trooper with Doug. We rode our Big Wheels ferociously down the sidewalk, on the hunt for imaginary von Trapps cowering in graveyards. We were too young to know that you never, under any circumstances, want to be a Nazi. In fact, we did not even know what a Nazi was, except that they were the only ones in the movie who got to drive really fast.

As the years rolled along, The Sound of Musicwas often in my thoughts. Amy and I, along with our neighbors and other assorted friends, were constantly planning elaborate living room productions. I was always going to be one of the dark-haired daughters: Marta, or Brigitta. (We were incredibly literal in our casting.) These productions never got off the ground, mostly because we did not know any boys with the gravitas to pull off Captain von Trapp. The scene where the boat capsizes in the lake also presented some unique and ultimately insurmountable production challenges.

Even though I grew up with a loving and safe family, the outside world seemed so large, the potential for terror so wide. But no matter what happened in life, the von Trapps always made it over that mountain.

But still, that didn’t stop us from making marionettes for our “Lonely Goatherd” scene. (We used tennis balls covered in cloth for the heads. They bounced wildly when dropped.) And every one of us kids had the soundtrack memorized. We sang along robustly to any number featuring the children and waited restlessly for the end of Maria and the Captain’s love song in the gazebo. If we hadn’t been afraid of scratching our parents’ records, we would’ve skipped that one entirely.

Being Catholic, I also felt a special kinship with the film and its characters. There were sisters who taught at my elementary school; they had knee-length habits and short veils and Philadelphia accents. When I watched the movie with my best friend, who was Protestant, I had a certain feeling of ownership: I could lay claim to those movie sisters in a way that she could not. I knew nuns. I got nuns. In a way, it’s fair to say that The Sound of Music made me proud of being Catholic. And though our sisters never had to perform urgent auto work to thwart the progress of Nazi storm troopers, I didn’t doubt for a minute that they could.

A comforting message

And what else can I really say about The Sound of Music, except that it made my childhood just that much happier? Along with the Catholic pride and the fun of planning those neighborhood productions, there was such a comforting sense of security every time I watched the movie. I always knew that the Captain’s cold heart would thaw after a few bars of the title song. I always knew that the brittle Baroness, with her sneaky plans to send the kids to boarding school, would lose to the charms of the warmly affectionate Maria. (This plot twist was comforting years later, as I navigated the dating world: I loved believing that honest authenticity would trump bitchy glamour.) And as powerful as the iron-hearted Nazis were, I knew that they would never trap the von Trapps. When I watched the movie, there was no doubt that good would prevail. Music, family and faith — these are powerful things, the musical says. Any one of these can help you weather the dog bites and bee stings of life. And when the three are combined — well, nothing, not even fascism, is stronger.

It may sound hokey, but I really feel that there’s something transcendent about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score.

That message was instinctively comforting to me. As a kid, I was a brooder. I’d hear the headlines of the evening news — a murder here, a kidnapping there — and I’d worry, deeply and silently. Even though I grew up with a loving and safe family, the outside world seemed so large, the potential for terror so wide. But no matter what happened in life, the von Trapps always made it over that mountain. I’d listen to the album on the portable record player in my room, and when the finale of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” came crashing out, I’d get a lump in my throat: one sensitive little kid sharing vicariously in someone else’s triumph.

Now, as a thirty-six year old mother of two, the musical still touches a chord inside me. It may sound hokey, but I really feel that there’s something transcendent about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score. When I hear the soundtrack, it’s as if time bends and I’m once again living the coziness and the endless summer afternoons of childhood. For just a moment, I’m happier. It’s as simple and as lovely as that.

And, thanks to my indoctrination, my toddler Matthew is proving to be quite the Sound of Music fan himself. I show him the DVD, playing the “songs only” track (someday, he’ll be shocked to learn that there is an actual story in the film). He laughs gleefully with the children during “My Favorite Things,” and he loves to sing “Do Re Mi” when we are in the car, an endearingly imperfect serenade from the backseat. Maybe one of these years he too will be planning living room productions, trying to crack the logistics of that boat scene, making marionettes out of fabric scraps and endless imagination.

And I’ll watch with affection, silently thanking The Sound of Music for making my little boy’s childhood — like my own — just that much happier.