We all know the story of The Sound of Music. Maria and the von Trapps have become staples of Americana, despite the story’s Austrian origin. What many of us do not know is that before the Julie Andrews movie, before the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and before the West German movie that inspired the musical, there was a book. Published in 1949, Maria Augusta von Trapp’s faithful account of her life and her family’s flight from Austria went on to become a bestseller and inspire the slew of adaptations we now enjoy. Why does this story continue to captivate? The context the von Trapps were steeped in can explain much of our continuing fascination with their adventures and travails.
Set in Salzburg, Austria, on the eve of World War II, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is populated by characters who have no knowledge of the terrible history about to unfold, but the audience does. This gap creates a palpable tension, because even as Maria sings “The hills are alive…” the audience is silently screaming, “Get out you fool; the Nazis are about to invade!” To the characters, their actions seem isolated and personal, but we know that they interlock with a much larger story that will eventually overwhelm their own.
In The Sound of Music, we experience history that parallels our present, and warnings for our future. The invasion and annexation of Austria by Germany, or Anschluss, on March 13, 1938, and Georg von Trapp’s refusal to serve the Nazi cause, seems at first glance to be distant from our own time. But just a year and a half ago, we watched Russia invade and annex Crimea. Like Ukraine and Russia, Germany and Austria have a shared history and closely related languages and ethnic groups. Hitler used this shared history and culture as a pretext to invade and occupy Austria following several failed coups and attempts to elect a Nazi government. After the Anschluss, the occupied Austrian government and Nazi Germany went through legal and political acrobatics in an attempt to “prove to a credulous world that Germany did not take Austria, but that Austria gave herself to Germany,” as a political commentator wrote a few months later.
In The Sound of Music, Georg von Trapp’s resistance to the Germanization and Nazification of Austria and his refusal to fly the Nazi flag at his home and to serve in the navy eventually bring him and his family into danger, and necessitate their flight from Austria. Captain von Trapp’s defiance of extremism is incredibly compelling, particularly when juxtaposed against recent global events. The stories of the rest of the characters as they grapple with what should be acceptable in love and in growing up are similarly universal and continue to dominate our contemporary cultural discourse, and likewise continue to resonate with audiences.
The new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 31, 2015, explores these issues with more immediacy than we have seen in previous versions. But it also contains everything audiences have loved about the story for the past half-century. As Director Jack O’Brien said, “We tell this story over and over again because our world will always be in peril…Any time you see people stand up for their rights and make a moral decision, it’s riveting.” This is, after all, a story about love battling with a Nazi invasion. At its heart, The Sound of Music is hopeful and joyful, but it also offers a stern warning and a daunting historical reminder of the realities of our world.