The problem with Maria - the real life story behind The Sound of Music
'The Sound of Music' might be one of the most schmaltzy films of all time but the real-life story wasn't so sweet, writes Helen Brown
It has been 50 years since cinema audiences first fell for Julie Andrews twirling into song in the giddy opening frames of The Sound of Music. Flinging out her arms to the Technicolor Alps, the 28-year-old from Surrey made wholesome happiness look easy.
This is a feat readers of Tom Santopietro's book about the world's best-loved musical film will find all the more remarkable when they learn that Andrews was freezing cold and the downdraft from the helicopter filming the scene had sent her sprawling on at least half of the 10 previous takes, provoking a rare burst of anger from the actress who yelled, "That's enough!" at director Robert Wise, perched in a nearby tree.
Wise gave a merry thumbs-up and instructed her to try again. Her complaint had been inaudible beneath the whirring of the helicopter's blades, just as the critics' scorn would soon be drowned out by audience applause.
The film-makers were braced for rough reviews. When the original play opened on Broadway in 1959, the New York Herald Tribune's Walter Kerr declared the tale of a singing-nun-turned-Nazi-dodging-nanny "not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music".
After the way Rodgers and Hammerstein had tackled domestic violence in Carousel (1945) and racism in South Pacific (1949), Kenneth Tynan described the chocolate-box conservatism of The Sound of Music as the duo's "great leap backwards".
They had certainly sentimentalised the true story of the von Trapp family. Santopietro's interview with the real Maria Kutschera's children inevitably reveals her to have been a more complex person. Both her parents had died by the time she was 10 and she was sent to live with a violent uncle from whom she eventually fled to the safety of convent life. When she was sent to nanny the seven children of widowed Austrian naval officer Georg von Trapp, it was the family who softened her, not the other way around.
"We never went running in a field and singing songs like that. We had a hard life. It was a struggle," recalls Rosmarie, one of Maria's own children with Georg. Rosmarie suffered from stage fright and hated the performing life her indomitable mother demanded. She blamed Maria for the nervous breakdowns she suffered in her 20s and 30s, but became her mother's nurse at the end.
When the von Trapps sold their story to Broadway, the deal gave them three-eighths of 1 pc of the royalties. They made the same deal with Hollywood, so The Sound of Music still brings the family around $100,000 a year.
A stage manager himself, Santopietro is at his best on the showbiz side of the story. He reminds us that Richard Rodgers was a cynical depressive, who was only happy when composing. "I can pee a melody," he said. Oscar Hammerstein was the optimist, the writer who wanted to speak to the "nobility of man". But he was diagnosed with stomach cancer during Broadway rehearsals for what would turn out to be the duo's last musical. The lyrics to 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' were read aloud at his funeral.
Both Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (as Georg) wanted a film that "cut the schmaltz" out of the play. But while Andrews was a lovable professional on set (doting on the little ones while yearning for her own infant daughter left behind in London), Plummer thought himself far too grand a thesp for the production. He flounced around in a cape, drinking schnapps and glowering at the child stars, who reworked the words of 'Edelweiss' as 'Bless my pay cheque forever'.
Although the film represented a career peak for all the children, remarkably none went off the rails and they retained a familial relationship throughout their lives.
Oprah Winfrey reunited them for a programme about the film in 2010, however, the standout moment of that show came when a Vietnam veteran told how his wife had "dragged" him to see the movie in 1966. He went on to see it a further 127 times and told Winfrey: "I could go to another world for three hours. I could go to that part of me that was free. For three hours it was just wonderful, splendid peace."
While the film owes its success to all involved, there is no denying that it was Andrews who sent it soaring. Kind and inspiring, she is the dream nanny with perfectly pitched sex appeal; the girl next door with a four-octave range. Santopietro quotes her sardonic second husband, director Blake Edwards, on the nature of her appeal: "I know exactly what it is. She has lilacs for pubic hairs."
In 2015, The Sound of Music stands as America's third-highest grossing film of all time (behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars), pulling in an estimated $1.2bn in ticket sales. And with its songs mixed into pop hits by Gwen Stefani, delivered as a medley by Lady Gaga at this year's Oscars and bawled aloud by fans at singalong screenings around the world, the cash tills are still alive with The Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music Story
Bantam Press, hdbk, 336p, €25.50
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