The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

6 thoughts on “The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

  1. Kevin Scott

    Great comments. I should point out that Maria Von Trapp approached Richard Rogers about writing the musical and Mary Martin (separately) about playing her on stage. She approved of those changes in the stage version, and probably the movie as well. But yes, it’s like the real compelling stories from the Titanic dropped in favor of the vapid love story in the movie.

    Reply
  2. S

    My memory– and, granted, it has been a few years since I read Maria Trapp’s biography– is that they lost their money in the depression because Captain Von Trapp had banked it with a trusted friend, whose bank then suffered a run. This was perhaps unwise, but doesn’t make him a spendthrift.

    Also, though they DID take in boarders and sing for their suppers, I also remember that when her last kid was born– after they had immigrated to the US– Maria had to be gently told that there were no servants to wash, and iron, the incredibly intricate, lovely infant garments she had brought with her from Germany. Her friend took her to a department store, where they bought jersey-knit onsies (the sort we are used to today), which have only to be washed and dried by machine; no ironing required. What I’m saying is, I think that despite their feeling of poverty during the depression, it was a comparative poverty; they still had servants up until they immigrated to the U.S.

    Also– apologies for nitpicking– if you have a source (sources?) other than her autobiography, or if you’ve just read it more recently than me, your information may be better than mine– but I seem to remember that she said that there were at least three precipitating incidents in their deciding to leave Austria. In the first, one of their sons (/her stepson, that is) was offered a position straight out of medical school, which was available because they had kicked all of the Jewish doctors out of the hospital; knowing this, he refused. Captain Von Trapp was offered a position as a U-boat captain again, this time for the German-Austrian Navy which he didn’t care to take up; and the family was invited to sing on the radio in honor of Hitler’s birthday, and when this happened they realized they would HAVE to leave. In my reading, that looks an awful lot like they were fleeing political persecution, more than that they were simply looking for better options for their kids.

    And, while it wasn’t nearly as dramatic or sudden as it is portrayed in the movie, they didn’t telegraph their intentions to about leaving to everyone; they just took a vacation camping trip to Italy, as they had done many times before… and never came back. They DID plan ahead enough to have a tour already scheduled in the U.S. before they left; but after that… they weren’t sure they would get to stay. It was touch and go for a while with them, as it often is for refugees.

    And again– this may be my romantic take on the situation– but I really think she had romantic feelings for her husband from before the time she married him. What happened was this: one day she was polishing the chandelier, when a couple of the children came in and asked her why she didn’t marry their dad. Her response was, “because he doesn’t love me.” The kids went back and told their dad, in that grapevine-way kids have of conveying information, and he came out and said, “Really? You’ll marry me?” And that is when she decided that she needed to go talk to her mother superior. Now, to me, “He doesn’t love me” is not something you say when you haven’t ever felt romantic feelings for a guy. Something more along the lines of “Well, sweetheart, I’m practically a nun now and it would be completely inappropriate for me to even think about that question, and may I suggest it would be inappropriate for anyone else to be thinking about it either” might have indicated a different set of feelings; but that isn’t what she said. And, actually, even going to your mother superior with the story, told like this, indicates how she was feeling; if you aren’t attracted to a person in that sort of situation, the conversation you are going to be having with your mother superior is one about sexual harassment and how we are not sending any other nice, innocent women to that house ever again to be “seduced” by That Man. My reading is that she felt she had an obligation to the church, which she was not going to run from, but that is a far cry from the sort of controlling relationship/behavior you impute to the mother superior. Which I’m not saying never happened; I just don’t think it did in this case.

    The fact that she cried (… in his arms…) about her mother superior’s instruction to go ahead and marry him just shows me that she really had been serious about her avocation as a nun, not that she didn’t have any feelings for him. It is entirely possible to want mutually exclusive things and to be sad that one thing isn’t going to happen while being not just OK with the other option, but even actually happy about it. Also, it’s scary when your life plan changes, even if it changes for the better. Also, what serious Catholic (which she definitely was) is going to openly admit getting a crush on her employer when she was trying to become a nun? But as I said, in my reading, she did basically admit to it.

    Anyway. I agree with you: they should have put Bach in the movie (also, Austrian folk songs, which she went around collecting before she became a nun), and the movie itself should have been less chirpy/syrupy. The real-life version of the “Rowlf” character was not their daughter’s beau, but their long-standing butler, who had played Santa at Christmastime for their children, and who turned out to be super-pro-Nazi. For some reason, Maria Trapp found that situation to be quite chilling.

    You should write a play! And probably not blog about it until it’s done, lest your friendly semi-anonymous commenter (but my sister knows you, and I think I’ve met you in person at least once) come along and tell you everything that’s wrong with it.

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  3. admin Post author

    I was mostly kidding when I said I would write a ‘closer-to-history’ play about the von Trapps. But then I got to thinking about it. And started it today.
    The biggest problem, I thought initially, is that telling the story of the Trapp Family Singers would require a big cast, and big cast shows are really hard to market in today’s market. Any theater interested in it would probably just say ‘instead of your play, why not just do Sound of Music? I’ll make more money.’ Which is completely true.
    But it’s nagging at me. And I think I can do it with four actors. So. . . . I’ll keep everyone posted.
    Thanks so much for your comments and interest! Especially S! Appreciate it!

    Reply

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