Bless Their Lederhosen, The Little Von Trapps Are Back

I’ve been accused of maliciously trying to trip up nuns and various von Trapp kiddies as they walked in virtuous, stately procession down the aisles of the Martin Beck Theater during the wedding scene in The Sound of Music . Let me say from the outset that I would never do such a thing, consciously.

It would be fair to say that this chintzy new production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s beloved tribute to the power of piety and treacle wasn’t at all to my taste, but that’s no excuse for kicking postulants down the aisle. My seating position made it seem as if I did it, and here I must digress for a moment to mention the miserably cramped seating conditions at the Martin Beck Theater that would tax the ingenuity of a dwarf. At $75 a pop, even the best seats in the house are the backbreaking, bruising equivalent to the back of the plane. If you have an aisle seat, you understandably stretch your legs into the aisle, hoping to avoid hardening of the arteries and the drinks trolley.

Now, Rocco Landesman, a producer of The Sound of Music and president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the Martin Beck, is not a small man. He’s a pleasant man. He’s also at least 6 feet tall, on a good day. This may not be one of them. I challenge him to sit anywhere in his own theater and announce to the world that his seat is just swell. He must tell us that he isn’t in the least bit cramped, inconvenienced or given to restless, murderous thoughts during “Edelweiss.” Well, he’s no fool. He won’t do it. It would be penance enough to ask anyone to sit through The Sound of Music , with the possible exception of 4-year-old children who believe in fairies and the insidiousness of the Anschluss. And the good Mr. Landesman must have had to sit uncomfortably through it more than once already.

He’s been punished enough. But I plead innocence to causing the near pileup that happened during the wedding processional. I may have been a little slow getting my legs out of the way of the singing nuns. I was too preoccupied watching the husband and wife-to-be, Captain Georg von Trapp and Maria, the lapsed postulant of Nonnberg Abbey, who were proceeding down the other aisle like royalty toward the mighty cathedral altar on stage. Anyway, a couple of nuns stepped, in a most dignified way, over my outstretched foot, which just missed tripping the adorable little Trapps, and that’s all I have to say on the matter.

Apart from “The Lonely Goatherd,” these are a few of my least favorite things-raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.… Call me an old malcontent, if you must. But Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics for The Sound of Music were far from his best. (The musical was his 35th, and it was the great man’s final work before he died.) But those oversweet lyrics could grace a greeting card. (The principal producer of this revival, appropriately enough, is Hallmark.) Richard Rodgers’ expert lightweight score-“Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “Do-Re-Mi,” the nagging “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”-is still greeted by all like familiar landmarks on the tour bus. We know them backward, like it or not, as if the score has entered our collective unconscious-a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown !

When The Sound of Music was first produced in 1959, it received very mixed reviews, obviously from mean-spirited souls, but was a smashing success. Rodgers and Hammerstein, the kings and rulers of the musical stage, were accused of taking a great leap backward in time to early operettas and cheap sentiment. They sure did, and Rodgers was defensive about it. Only two years before The Sound of Music , the possibilities of the modern Broadway musical had been revolutionized by Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story . Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves had brought the musical to a stunning new level of maturity with their 1945 Carousel . They were now even borrowing from themselves-a good source, though the somewhat shameless center of The Sound of Music was another version of their superior King and I .

In both musicals, an independently minded governess wins the heart of a handsome widower-tyrant while teaching astonishing numbers of cute, unruly offspring to listen to the sound of music, whistle a happy tune. It has been cruelly pointed out some time ago that, unlike the fabled Yul Brynner’s King of Siam, Baron von Trapp is not a bald hero, but if Maria had taken her vows, we would at least have had a hairless heroine. Be that as it may, if The Sound of Music was a leap backward in its own day, what on earth does that make it today?

“I want to deal with the subject in a more authentic way,” director Susan Schulman told The New York Times . “In the 1950’s, nobody wanted to upset anybody-especially in a musical. World War II was still very real for many people. There was a fear about musicals dealing with such heavy subject matter, a concern that it wasn’t appropriate.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. We are dealing with a glib fairy tale called The Sound of Music , not the musical version of Mein Kampf . The original producers of the show thought the sight of a swastika worn even by the on-stage Nazi officers would be too close to the bone. They were foolish. But it’s foolish of Ms. Schulman to imagine that the conspicuous swastikas she uses in the revival create any kind of authentic reality-“the dark side,” as she puts it, of Austria during the Anschluss (the time when the musical is set). The forthcoming revival of Cabaret takes a harsh, un-show-biz-y look at its Nazi setting; the darker subtext is there to be mined. Nicolas Hytner’s brilliantly revisionist Carousel similarly illuminated its tragic undertow, which had been submerged for years. But The Sound of Music simply isn’t in their league, and a few swastikas are neither here nor there. In fact, their terrible meaning is devalued. The swastikas turn out to be about as threatening as the Big Bad Bear. The happy end to The Sound of Music , after all, is assured.

Why revive it? Why not rent the Julie Andrews film for the umpteenth time instead? Stay home, save lots of dough, sit in comfort with the kids gathered lovingly around you, whack them when they get bored. (No one will see.) But I do not know the answers to such solemn questions. As the signature song goes, “I know what I hear will be what I heard before.” So let’s say that Rebecca Luker’s Maria is charming, charming and charming; Michael Siberry’s Baron von Trapp is rumored to be half-alive; Jan Maxwell as the society dame, Elsa, brings a bit of snap to the goody-goody proceedings; and that all the adorable little von Trapp darlings do extremely well, in spite of me, bless their lederhosen. Bless Their Lederhosen, The Little Von Trapps Are Back