Why The Sound of Music has such enduring appeal

With a restored print about to screen in cinemas, the 1965 musical is set to win more fans and earn yet more money. Barbara Vancheri looks at why the film has struck such a chord around the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2015, 10:30pm

Late in filming for The Sound of Music - after a helicopter's downdraft had knocked Julie Andrews over, after rain clobbered the schedule and budget, and after an angry farmer poked holes in a man-made brook - the leading lady delivered a tentative prediction. "This smells as if it might be a success," Andrews said.

It proved to be quite an understatement. The musical - released 50 years ago in March 1965 - became so phenomenally popular that it was nicknamed "The Sound of Money" and dubbed "The Mint". The movie played in cinemas in the US for four years until the studio withdrew it with plans for a reissue; the demand in England was so insatiable that the film set a record with 170 weeks at a London theatre.

Decades later, while promoting a live CBS presentation of On Golden Pond with co-star Christopher Plummer, Andrews said: "I don't think either of us knew it would take off that way. I guess when you put all those ingredients - beautiful scenery and beautiful music and children and nuns and all of that - together, the only thing that was missing was Lassie, I guess."

And now, the musical's glories are being revisited in its golden anniversary. For starters, Lady Gaga performed a medley from The Sound of Music at the recent Oscar ceremony and was greeted by Andrews afterwards.

The restored film is returning to 500-plus US cinemas from April 19, and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has just released a five-disc edition with a new documentary. The movie also opened the TCM Classic Film Festival on March 26 at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where Andrews and Plummer enjoyed a rare reunion. And the West End musical version arrives in Hong Kong next month.

A half-century ago, preview audiences accurately predicted that most of the world would embrace The Sound of Music. After test runs in Minnesota and Oklahoma, 360 audience members rated it excellent, and five called it good.

It premiered on March 2, 1965, at the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway in front of an audience that included composer Richard Rodgers, Bette Davis and Salvador Dali, Richard Stirling's biography of Andrews reported. Davis told the leading lady: "The motion picture business is in love with you!"

Beautiful scenery and beautiful music and children … together, the only thing that was missing was Lassie, I guess

The Sound of Music began as a "roadshow" engagement, with reserved seating at a very limited number of theatres, higher prices (US$1.50 to US$3 depending on the day and time) and scheduled film start times instead of continuous shows. It also had an intermission, just like a Broadway play.

That is the opposite of the release pattern today, where a movie will often open on as many screens as possible and aim to be the box-office champion for the weekend or longer. A popular film may hold for a couple of months before starting its speedy march to DVD, Blu-ray and on-demand viewing.

The Sound of Music was an event, and even by December 1965 it was playing in 131 of the 14,000-plus cinemas in the US. The movie musical broke records in 80 per cent of those venues and a Fox studio official famously pointed to Salt Lake City as an example of its success: the city's population then was 199,300 and yet a theatre there sold 309,000 tickets.

For a time, The Sound of Music displaced Gone With the Wind as the domestic box-office champion of all time, although it now stands at No3 when adjusted for inflation, behind GWTW and the first Star Wars.

As for its enduring appeal, Barry Monush, author of the new book The Sound of Music FAQ, has no easy or single answer. "I adore the film. I meet people all the time who adore the film, and I meet just as many people who scowl at the very mention of the name," he says.

Monush, whose day job is assistant curator at the Paley Centre for Media in New York, first saw the movie as a six-year-old at a theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was his sister's 10th birthday in October 1965, and an aunt had an extra ticket. Because it starred the actress from Mary Poppins, he was thrilled to tag along.

He didn't really understand who the Nazis were, but he knew they were menacing. "I loved it in 1965, and I still love it," he says. "Every time I see it, it still elevates me."

As for why it took the world by storm in 1965 and forever after, Monush is not quite sure. "We've all seen movies that we find absolutely wonderful that don't make anywhere near as much money and don't endure as well."

It has a great score, but so do other films that don't make a cent. "It is extremely good storytelling. I think Robert Wise deservedly won that Academy Award for best director," making a nearly three-hour movie that flies by, Monush says. "And the casting of Julie Andrews is pivotal. Somehow she manages to make that character so real and never cloying. I really think she's an essential part of why people fell in love with the movie."

Many baby boomers remember getting dressed in their Sunday finery and travelling to an old-fashioned movie palace with their family to watch the film advertised as "The Happiest Sound in All the World". Even if now, as a jaundiced adult, you think of it as treacle, you can't deny your childhood affection for it. And, if you come across it on television, you may not watch the entire movie, but you might stick around for Sixteen Going on Seventeen or Edelweiss.

It has everything from a basis in fact and a fairy-tale romance to soaring Rodgers and Hammerstein music, spectacular scenery, thrills, love, the chance for seven children to have a mother and their father a mate again, terror and, ultimately, triumph over the Nazis. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won five, for best picture, director, film editing, music and sound.

There really was a Maria von Trapp, a one-time postulant who was sent to the home of retired naval captain Georg von Trapp and his brood. She and the widower were married in 1927, their three children joined the seven from his first marriage, and they escaped from the Nazis. The stage musical and then film arrived long before the internet turned critics and patrons into truth squads ferreting out differences between fact and fiction.

Timing is everything. Wise speculated that volatile 1965 provided the perfect launching pad. "Newspapers carried headlines of the war in Vietnam, a cultural revolution was beginning to spread throughout the country, and people needed old-fashioned ideals to hold on to. The public was ready, possibly even eager, for a film like this," the director wrote in a foreword to The Sound of Music - The Making of America's Favorite Movie (1993) by Julia Antopol Hirsch.

"Besides an outstanding score and an excellent cast, it had a heartwarming story, good humour, someone to love and someone to hate, and seven adorable children."

The president of Twentieth Century Fox had seen the musical on opening night and reportedly was moved to tears. In June 1960, the studio bought the film rights for US$1.25 million, against 10 per cent of the gross.

One reviewer suggested The Sound of Music would restore film-goers' faith in movies and even humanity, but many blasted the musical as saccharine, corny and old hat. The New York Times suggested that most of the adult performances, including Plummer's, were "fairly horrendous". (Andrews was nominated for the best actress Oscar but lost to Julie Christie.)

Andrews says: "I don't honestly know what that was about. Maybe they had more to choose from in those days, more musicals. Maybe they were spoiled by a lot of choices.

"On Broadway, it was a lot more saccharine. I think people thought it was OK to pan it because it did have that somewhat saccharine quality, which we in the film tried to dispel and to some degree, thanks to Christopher [Plummer], we did. Maybe they thought it's manly to put it down. Whatever they wrote, [it] stood the test of time."

Tribune News Service, with additional reporting by the Los Angeles Times