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Emma Brockes on The Sound of Music

9.14.2007

Did anyone else grow up with this musical? I didn't like it when I was younger because of the Nazis. But it's one of the best musicals ever. Emma Brockes, author of What Would Barbra Do: How Musicals Changed My Life, argues that Mary Poppins is a better film (I think I disagree...it would take another viewing of the Disney classic), but her writing on this Rogers and Hammerstein masterpiece is right-on.

"The first ten minutes of The Sound of Music are equal to any artistry since Plato's Republic but still make you want to hide your face, like seeing the hand of God."
The Sound of Music is not like other musicals. It has strange powers to mortify and exalt. It means more to some people than perhaps it deserves and incites greater hatred than its faults can be blamed for. I have a friend who says she could only marry a man who likes, or more realistically, didn't actively loathe The Sound of Music, because while most of the time she isn't watching it, when she is, it gladdens her heart like nothing on earth.

There are probably statistics to show that, as with the number of rats in London, one is never more than five hundred yards away from an amateur production of The Sound of Music. Its fans seem to treat it less as a film than a utility and it's almost impossible to go through a twelve-month period without inadvertently watching it. Traditionally it comes on TV on New Year's Day, when you are at your most vulnerable. Prone, still sweating champagne from the night before, you reach for the remote control, but your limbs won't obey and you fumble with the handset and before you can switch channels those opening notes have sounded dribs and drabs of flute like an offhand but irresistible invitation to come! Enter into eternal joy!

The camera soars over the Alps and Maria runs across the mountainside. All it needs is a smooth voice over to look like a 1970s introduction to holiday homes in the Tyrol, but even though its naked resolve to uplift should be enough to put you right off, like those Christian prayers masquerading as nondenominational "motivational" messages you find printed on cards and hung in spa waiting rooms--before you know it you're two hours in and hissing at the baroness as she clumsily tries to play ball with the children and the hills are alive with the Sound of Music whatever that means, but still, for some reason, it's impossible to get up and turn the thing off.


In The Sound of Music, the magic moment isn't the opening scene when Julie Andrews glides across the Alps, arms outstretched and with a look on her face that is only fully explained when you know she was being filmed at close range from a helicopter. The Sound of Music's real killer moment creeps quietly up two-thirds in, when, having fired Maria for recycling his curtains and falling in the lake, Captain von Trapp hears singing in the house and storms off to investigate. (She looks at his retreating back like Jesus did on the marketplace.) Marching into the house, he finds his children in the parlor, singing the title song to the baroness. "The hills are alive..."

As he listens in the doorway, something begins to dawn on him. Yes, he thinks, I remember this, the tender feelings provoked by a seven-part harmony. An expression creeps across the captain's face and as the ice around his heart melts, tears spring from his eyes, and he walks into the room crooning that he, the captain, also goes to the hills when his heart is lonely. The children stare at him as if a small mammal has just appeared through the curtain of his fringe, but recovering themselves, come in with backing vocals to accompany their father in the first von Trapp family sing-along since the death of the mother and at that moment, brrr, click, the baroness is defeated, a chill goes through the audience, Maria has brought music back into the house! And that, my friends, is the magic of the musical.

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