Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Hills Are Alive with "The Sound of Music"! Or, What I Did on My Summer Vaction, Part the First-Edited

Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria Rainer

Also, the Festival Theatre in Stratford, ON, where my children and I spent last week. We were celebrating my daughter Joan's graduation from Oberlin College with a splurge of 5 nights, 6 days, and 7 plays at one of the most beloved and well-regarded theater festivals in North America. Start to finish, it was stupendous-- the trip, the company, and the theater.

On our last night, Ned, Joan and I dined at an Ontario Street eatery in the heart of the downtown area, and decided to do our "Top Seven" of the Festival, by which I mean: We talked through each production, in ascending order of our ardor. That's a bit tongue-in-cheek. In fact, we loved every play we saw. But I thought it might be fun to share here my impressions, before they have faded into the mists of my middle-aged memory. I'll start, as you may have guessed, with "The Sound of Music."

In the way of background, I need to tell you my relationship with the film of "The Sound of Music." That movie, with the eternally fabulous Julie Andrews as Maria Rainer, opened in the US when I was four years old. I cannot honestly say I remember the first time I saw it in the theater. I can honestly say that I must have fallen head-over-heels in love with it, as I pestered my family to take me back... again, and again, and again. All told, I saw the movie thirteen times. This, before the age of video or DVD, before the age of streaming movies on Netflix. Thirteen trips to the movies, yessirree.

Why all the love? To the best I can understand:

1. The nuns. I was a little Catholic girl, whose family was very involved with church, and though I wasn't yet attending, in two short years I would be in a parochial school classroom with Sister Hubert, a wonderful and patient Dominican sister who would oversee my (brief) time in the first grade. I loved their habits. I loved the Gregorian chant (beautifully and effectively imitated by Rodgers and Hammerstein). I loved the depiction of Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, which I would eventually visit when I was in my twenties (attending mass on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption). The nuns held a mystique for me that did not easily let me go until... well, maybe it never did. (When I played Sister Sophia in my high school production, one of my teachers told me he had never seen a more nun-like nun, on or off the stage.)

2. The children! Of course, a movie with a cast of seven children is always a plus for one who is, herself, a child. And I was immediately captivated by Gretl. Gretl! A little girl who was, often, at the center of the story! At least, she was in my eyes. My family loved referring to me as "Gretl" for a time, until...

3. It became clear I could actually do a creditable imitation of Julie Andrews. Ah, Dame Jules. She was, of course, the heart and soul of the film, with that glorious voice (and British accent, which I also loved). It might not be an exaggeration to say, she taught me to sing.

Suffice to say, I came to this production with a lot of love. I was not disappointed.

The traditional overtur fades into evening prayer at the Abbey. The nuns file onstage singing chant, ending in the traditional doxology. Then they break into (eight?) parts, for the stunning "Rex admirabilis." Goosebumps. Really thrilling sound.

And the rest of the production followed suit. Gorgeous singing by every lead and supporting cast member. Lovely simple but effective choreography for the children. Inventive set-change choreography, including a troupe of tipsy gardeners. A version of the Laendler (a traditional Austrian folk-dance) between Maria and Captain Von Trapp that evoked the heat between them while remaining utterly sweet and innocent. (How did they do that? It was quite brilliant.)

And, in the climactic scene of the family's escape from Nazi storm-troopers, staging that put my heart in my mouth. Liesl's erstwhile boyfriend Rolf, gun drawn, races towards her father. Liesl throws herself between her father and her Nazi bf, his pistol in her face for a long, breath-holding moment.

And "Climb Every Mountain." A song that ought to be sung regularly-- a statute ought to be drawn up. Every play should end with this song. So beautifully sung.

If you are looking for deep analysis of Austria and the politics leading up to the Nazi takeover, this is not your play. If you are looking for some acknowledgement of the Holocaust, ditto. The program describes "TSoM" as a fable, a story that tells the truth, though it is not exactly history. That truth has to do with honor, with love, with family, and even with a nod to the church as sanctuary (certainly a hot topic even now, in this country).

I loved it. I recommend it.

Edited to add:

I have been pondering something else. I noticed in my "top seven" conversation with Ned and Joan that I  tended to rate as more excellent and thrilling experiences, those times when I was completely taken out of myself. If I had self-consciousness during a performance... for instance, thinking intensely about my childhood experience of the movie while watching the play... it seemed a less wonderful experience. I don't go to theater to think about myself, I go to be taken out of myself.

And all this makes me think of Kierkegaard's musings on theater and worship... more on that later.

More on the rest of the plays as my schedule allows....

Info about the 2015 Stratford Festival production of "The Sound of Music" can be found here....


  1. In the coincidence department, I was also Sister Sophia in a high school production of Sound of Music. I wound up doing some "Catholic coaching" and received compliments about how good I looked being made up to be old! I still love the musical, although I wish productions would use "An Ordinary Couple" rather than "Something Good."

    Looking forward to hearing more about your fabulous family/theater week!


    1. Our high school used "An Ordinary Couple." This one used "Something Good," which is, honestly, just awful theology. :-)

      I'll write more soon! Also, soon to edit this one a bit.

    2. Our high school used "An Ordinary Couple," too. That is why I know it. I agree that "Something Good" is problematic, on a number of levels.

  2. Also my favorite movie--no surprise. ;-) I first saw it in utero, and can't count how many times since. Julie Andrews was definitely my first crush. As recently as this afternoon, I was considering the "Morning Hymn and Alleluia" that the nuns sang for a choir selection at my church (no kidding, you can get it on!).

    1. Oh goodness, that is dangerous information for this Catholic-turned-Presbyterian....!