On the Beat

On the Beat

Salzburg Girls of Summer: Heather Menzies, Angela Cartwright and Kym Karath talk about The Sound of Music Family Scrapbook.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Sound of Music lg 612

FOR YEARS,  Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music has been embraced by the opera world. Star sopranos, from LEONTYNE PRICE to KIRI TE KANAWA, have performed "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in concert; in 1987, a new recording, with a cast headed by FREDERICA VON STADE and HÅKAN HAGEGÅRD, appeared. This past April 24, Carnegie Hall offered a concert version featuring STEPHANIE BLYTHE as the Mother Abbess. Although the critical reaction to the Broadway original, starring MARY MARTIN as Maria, was mixed, time has been good to The Sound of Music.

But let's be honest: how often do we really think of The Sound of Music as a stage show? We think of the movie, starring JULIE ANDREWS and CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER and directed by ROBERT WISE, released by Twentieth Century–Fox in 1965. It made box-office history (it turned the faltering studio's fortunes around overnight) and, more unpredictably, it made a kind of cultural history we can safely call unique. Everyone I know remembers in startling detail seeing The Sound of Music for the first time. I certainly do: it was at the old Fox Theater in Portland, Oregon, and I was six years old. Not knowing when the film might reach our small-town theater, my family made the ninety-mile trip to the city to see it. From the moment we entered the theater, our family outing had the feeling of a real event. (I still have the souvenir program book, which in the years ahead I would practically commit to memory, while the LP soundtrack snapped, crackled and popped after constant spins on the turntable.) One thing about seeing the film I will always remember: my no-nonsense, unsentimental father, whose movie tastes ran more to The Longest Day and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, proclaiming, as he drove us home, "Well — I think that's the best movie I ever saw in my life." 

I think it's this sort of childhood memory — of the days when a family movie outing was a really big deal — that makes The Sound of Music such a cultural bonding experience for my generation. It's surely what's behind the popularity of The Sound of Music Sing-Alongs. We may smirk at some of the movie's cloying touches, such as CHARMIAN CARR's reaction to being kissed by Nazi bicycle messenger DANIEL TRUHITTE in the gazebo — but does any movie represent our shared past as vividly as The Sound of Music?

So it's reassuring to know that the seven young actors who played the Von Trapp children have been a kind of family unit themselves through the forty-seven years that have passed since the film's release. They knew they were part of something special: there were no personality problems; they reveled in the field trips to sites around Salzburg, where much of the film was shot. Robert Wise set out to create a real family out of the younger cast members, and he succeeded. (They talk about it in a wonderful interview on the film's fortieth-anniversary DVD.) And now, they have contributed their memories to a captivating new book, The Sound of Music Family Scrapbook, launched in the U.S. on April 3. 

The engaging text is by FRED BRONSON, but the book is a true collaborative effort: NICHOLAS HAMMOND (Friedrich) contributed pages from the original script; HEATHER MENZIES (Louisa) offered excerpts from the diary she kept during the filming; DEBBIE TURNER (Marta) sent in her plane ticket to Salzburg; DUANE CHASE (Kurt) included a congratulatory note from Robert Wise and a contract for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; everyone had call sheets and snapshots and home movies (included on a DVD), and plenty of stories. Assembling the book was daunting, because of the logistics of getting all the individual participants to sign off on everything. "It's a friggin' miracle that this came off," says ANGELA CARTWRIGHT, who played Brigitta. "We all get along great. But seven people. To quote Julie Andrews in the movie, 'Seven?!'" 

For KYM KARATH, who played five-year-old Gretl, the most treasured piece of memorabilia she contributed is a letter she wrote to her father from the Austrian location. "It really touched me to see my father's writing on the bottom, dating it," she says. "My father passed away, and it really brought back all the beautiful memories of my family." She vividly recalls the filming of the scene in which the boat tips over, spilling Maria and the children into the lake. Karath couldn't swim, and the assistant director who fished her out of the water wound up marrying her older sister. "I hope it wasn't out of gratitude," Karath laughs. "Because the marriage only lasted a year." 

Nearly every aspiring child actor I have ever talked with remembers fantasizing about getting a chance to be in the film. "It was like going to a magic castle every day," recalls Heather Menzies. "It became a way of life — a golden way of life." Of those lucky seven who were cast, Angela Cartwright was the most seasoned, coming off seven years of The Danny Thomas Show. "I think Bob Wise really looked for a natural quality in us," she says. "There were a lot of kid actors who went up for these parts, kids with tons of experience. And Bob Wise didn't use them." In the end, Wise put together two families of seven and moved them back and forth from one line to another before settling on his final choices. (I can't help but wonder how those other seven actors coped in the years ahead, knowing how close they came to being in a pop-culture phenomenon.)

Recently, I watched The Sound of Music again, for the first time in many years, and I found new things to focus on. William Reynolds's film editing is stunning; the "Do Re Mi" sequence is an imaginative expression of the growing love between Maria and the children. But mostly, I don't look at the movie too critically. It's hard to, when it holds such a powerful pull of personal memories — when it seems so bound up in an irretrievable past. The film itself now seems a kind of so long, farewell to a moviegoing experience that is no longer possible. There must be countless people my age and older who feel just the same way about it. It's almost as if, without realizing it, we've been keeping our own Sound of Music scrapbooks for all these years. spacer 



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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2