Monday, January 6, 2014

"Forever Sappy"

It is not easy to argue that, containing song lyrics like,

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens…

That The Sound of Music isn’t sappy.

This argument is particularly difficult to sustain when The Sound of Music, which opened on Broadway in 1959, is contrasted with the likes of West Side Story which opened two years earlier featuring sultrily delivered lyrics like

Anita’s gonna get her kicks
We’ll have our private little “mix”

So I shall not bothering trying.

(Note:  A reasonable argument can be made that all musicals are sappy, since nobody in real life – with a few notable and close at hand exceptions – inappropriately bursts into song.  I felt the need to stick that in before moving on, in the interest of people who hate musicals.  I hear ya.  But, like the Monkees, I’m too busy singing to make out exactly what you are saying.)

It was my mother who inspired my enthusiasm musicals.  When I was young, she would return from vacations to New York, handing me a stack of unwrinkled and unrolled-up Playbills – the official programs for Broadway shows – from such classics of the era as My Fair Lady, the aforementioned West Side Story and the The Music Man. 

Then, one day, she took me.

In honor of my sixteenth birthday, I was invited to accompany my mother to Broadway, our excursion also including my mother’s best friend Lea and her husband Ben Michaels. 

Their inclusion is significant to this story, because Ben Michaels was the Ontario – a Canadian province in which Toronto is located – sales representative for Vanguard Records, the celebrated label for numerous folk singing luminaries, such as Paul Robeson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and later, (the less folky) Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Specifically to today’s story, Vanguard’s roster of performers also included folksinger Theodore Bikel, who in 1961 when we traveled to New York was starring opposite Mary Martin in – “full circle”, people –

The Sound of Music.

As a result of Ben Michaels’ business connections, the four of us scored excellent “house seats” for a matinee performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit, after which we were invited to come backstage and say hello to Mr. Bikel.

I do not remember the specifics of the performance but, having devoured The Sound of Music’s  “Original Cast Album” at home, I am certain that, on more than a few occasions, from my seat in the dark, I could be heard quietly – or maybe not so quietly – singing along. 

What’s stayed with me is that when the show was over, after a whispered exchange between Ben Michaels and somebody in authority at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, we were unimpededly ushered backstage.

The following anecdote, less personal recollection than “accumulated family lore” often repeated to my red-faced embarrassment later in life, relates that outside the dressing room after having shaken hands with Theodore Bikel, I was heard to proclaim, “I am never washing this hand again!

I was sixteen. 

Okay, that’s a little old for that kind of behavior, but what do you expect from a guy who likes musicals?

Undeniably, confirmed by the “Bikel Incident”, there is a personal connection to The Sound of Music.  But there is also something inherent in the material that tugged inexorably at my heartstrings.  I mean, come on.  A chorus of nuns rendering a soaring version of “Climb Every Mountain” as the Von Trapp family escapes the pursuing Nazis on foot over the Alps into Switzerland.  (My research indicates that the family actually escaped by train into Italy.) 

Most memorably, at an intense crisis moment in the story, newly Nazified young Rolf, discovers the Von Trapp family hiding in the abbey, calls out to his superior, but then, when confronted by the face of the his former sweetheart,  (“Sixteen Going On Seventeen”) Liesl, Rolf does a dramatic “one-eighty”, reporting to his superior that there is nobody there.

Okay, so it’s cheesy.  And I’m older now.  And that stuff is for kids.


NBC broadcasts a live version of The Sound of Music which I happen to run into, channel-surfing for ever more episodes of Law & Order SVU. 

And in the way that real things happen that in fiction would be considered laughably coincidental, I come right into the scene where the family is hiding in the abbey and flashlight-wielding, Nazi-Boy Rolf discovers them in the dark, and he calls out to his superior, and then Liesl reveals herself to the flashlight’s exposing glare, and he changes his mind… 

And I choke up again!

What can I tell you? 

Either the moment works beautifully dramatically…

Or it’s something about me.


JED said...

There is nothing wrong with sappy. It turns out that my parents took me to New York City for a week or so in 1961 (I was ten years old) and one of the big events they had planned was to go to Broadway and see The Sound of Music with Mary Martin (and, I guess, Theodore Bikel, too, but I don't remember that). I mostly remember my father proudly proclaiming to every tour group we were in that we were from Pittsburgh whose Pirates had defeated the Yankees in the previous World Series. But instead of being embarrassed, I was proud of my father's courage.

It would be funny if I could say that throughout the entire performance of the musical, I was annoyed by the young man in front of me singing along through the performance but I can't. We went to an evening performance - and probably not the same day. And we didn't get to go backstage. Probably because we were from Pittsburgh.

Jim Dodd

Canda said...

Part of the Golden Age of musicals. Great songs, lyrics and stories, and you could bring your kid.

Hammerstein always said he would agonize for days and weeks over lyrics, and then watch Richard Rogers in minutes come up with a terrific melody. Consider the two great lyricists Rogers worked with - OH and Lorenz Hart. Amazing career.

Unfortunately, the company that oversees rights for Rogers and Hammerstein is a bear to work with, and will charge you an arm and a leg.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I was lucky enough to grow up in NYC. As a child, I was taken to original cast performances of Camelot, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof. The only thing I really remember from The Soound of Music is Edelweiss. *That* melody gets me. I later did read the von Trapp family's autobiography, but I still remember nothing of the musical's portrayal of their escape - though I remember the peasants being forced out of their homes in Fiddler.

As a grown-up, I can't stand MOST musicals. Except for HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, whose central conceit really hasn't dated. And, for reasons to do with Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, perhaps bec]ause the movies of those are great, where I loathe the movies of the others.

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to be treated to the London cast of THE BOOK OF MORMON. That enormously funny show nonetheless moved me a great deal - because the America that the Ugandans sang so hopefully about barely exists any more.