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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 22, 2017: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: The Sound of Music

[It’s back—the very popular annual post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, in which I AmericanStudy some of those things that just don’t quite do it for me. Leading up to what is always my most full and fun crowd-sourced weekend post, so share your own non-favorites in comments, please!]
On the problems with overly saccharine art, and how it can still help change the world.
My main issue with the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (1959) can be summed up in one very funny, semi-raunchy line from the great romantic comedy The Opposite of Sex (1998). Lisa Kudrow’s hardened, cynical character Lucia is talking to Martin Donovan’s Bill about how she feels around him and the many other particularly “nice” people in her life, and uses the following pitch-perfect analogy: “That’s how I always felt around you, like the Baroness in The Sound of Music. Everybody’s singing and climbing an Alp, and I just wanna stuff that guitar up that nun’s ass!” Baroness Elsa Schrader, the initial love interest for (indeed, the long-waiting fiancée of) the widowed Captain von Trapp in the musical, is of course the only non-Nazi main character unable to resist former nun and current governess Maria’s musical charms (charms which, among many other effects, succeed in winning over the Captain and stealing him from the Baroness). My main experience with Sound is the 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews (although I did get to see a performance of the musical as part of my job with the Ash Lawn-Highland Summer Music Festival), and at least based on that film adaptation I’d have to say I side with the Baroness (and apparently Lucia): let’s just say that Andrews’ unimaginably chipper performance as Maria is very much not one of my favorite things.
That’s a matter of personal preference and response, to be sure; but I also believe that the problems with the musical’s sugar-sweet tone run deeper, and can be succinctly illustrated by the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” As that film clip reflects, the song presents a youthful moment of courtship and budding romance between the oldest von Trapp child, 16 year old Liesl, and her suitor, 17 year old Rolf—who, oh yeah, just happens to be a Nazi courier, and indeed the first Nazi character we meet in the musical (and really the only one we meet for the entirety of Act I). I’m not suggesting that Nazi youth weren’t human beings and couldn’t fall in love, but it’s telling that the principal Nazi character for much of this musical (set in Austria in 1938, just before the Nazi invasion and annexation known as the Anschluss) is a handsome and charming young man whose surprise first kiss with a youthful heroine is a source of delighted giggles. Moreover, in one of the musical’s final moments Rolf has the chance to turn the von Trapp family over to his Nazi superiors but, seeing Liesl, chooses instead to let them escape, meaning that our most prominent Nazi character remains first and foremost a young lover throughout the story. Night and Fog (1956) this very much isn’t.
Yet while I thus very much wouldn’t recommend The Sound of Music for those looking to learn more about the Nazis or their era, that doesn’t mean that the musical can’t have an interesting perspective to offer on such complex and crucial historical subjects. And I would focus in particular on the moments right before Rolf’s culminating choice, when Maria, the Captain, and the rest of the von Trapp family have used their musical talents (and the support of others in their musical community) to engineer an escape from the Nazis (who have ordered the Captain into service as a military officer and intend him and his family harm if he resists). Moreover, it’d be entirely possible to argue that it’s precisely the lovable, family-friendly nature of their performance which allows it to entertain and thus distract the audience (including those Nazis) sufficiently for the von Trapps to make their getaway. There’s obviously an important role for overtly aggressive, activist art to play in resisting and challenging Nazis and their ilk. But The Sound of Music makes the case, in its own saccharine and charming way to be sure, that light-hearted and entertaining art can at the same time likewise punch Nazis in the face. Not sure I can imagine a more important idea for us to consider here in 2017 America.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this non-favorite or others you’d share?

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