"The Sound of Music" was probably put on earth to teach critics a much-needed lesson in humility. Both the original musical and the subsequent movie version got mixed reviews. Both became spectacular and enduring hits. So, pointing out the limitations of this revival the first on Broadway in the 38 years since the show opened is probably a thankless task.
The appeal of Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration is hardly a puzzle. "The Sound of Music" has lots of cute kids. It has, in the tale of how the young Maria melts the glacial heart of Captain von Trapp, a sweet love story. The family's flight from the Nazis is, literally, escapist drama. And there are, in the title song, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "My Favorite Things" and "Edelweiss" some of Richard Rodgers' most hummable tunes.
It does two things beside. It puts a soothing, optimistic gloss on a terrible war that had, after all, ended only 15 years before the musical's opening. And it conjures an unusually warm image of Catholicism, a faith previously neglected by theater.
Yet, compared to "Oklahoma!", "Carousel" or "The King and I," it does not show Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best. The book not, unlike the others, written or adapted by Hammerstein doesn't have such rich characterizations or such theatrical daring. The best tunes are rather overused. And the lyrics are more arch and more strained than Hammerstein's finest.
These problems are sadly obvious in director Susan H. Schulman's uninspired revival. Without the star power or the lavish spectacle of the recent Broadway revival of "The King and I," "The Sound of Music" is sweetly enjoyable but rather underwhelming. The producers seem to have such faith in the indestructibility of the musical that they have not felt the need to reinvent it for the 1990s.
The nearest thing to innovation here is a decision to combine songs from the musical and movie versions. One of the changes singing "My Favorite Things" to the children, as in the movie, rather than with the abbess in Maria's convent is successful.
Otherwise, though, the decision is badly misjudged. The two songs dropped for the movie "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It" are weak.
Meanwhile, the two songs from the movie that were not in the original but that are included here "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good," both written by Rodgers alone are also rather poor. Putting them back in slows the action and reminds us how heavily the show relies on a few good songs.
The singing here does not make the best of them. Though Rebecca Luker as Maria is no Julie Andrews, she does have a charming, open manner and a pure, pleasant voice. Michael Siberry looks the part of the severe captain, but doesn't have the vocal power to invest his songs with emotion. His climactic rendition of "Edelweiss," crucial to the drama, falls especially flat.
Without great singing, spectacular staging or any attempt to connect with the reality of Nazism, we are left with some good tunes and lots of charm. Perhaps, even for today's audience, that will be enough. If so, "The Sound of Music" will have proved that it really is indestructible.
It's almost as bad as confessing you don't like peanut butter and jelly.
However, "The Sound of Music," which last night was given a spick-and-span and spanking-new production at the Martin Beck Theatre, is never going to be one of my favorite things - any more than those damned "bright copper kettles" they sing about.
I try to love it the way so many people love it. But it doesn't help me. The mind is willing, but the heart is weak.
It was the last of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals - and although I definitely prefer it to their penultimate effort, "Flower Drum Song," it still doesn't represent the team at its best.
Perhaps, interestingly, it is the only one of their collaborations in which Hammerstein did not write the book, as well as the lyrics.
This sugar-stuffed show started life as a vehicle for the indomitable Mary Martin - a play with music, based on the true story of Maria Rainer.
She was a postulant nun who served as governess to the seven children of the widowed Capt. Georg von Trapp in Austria, married the captain and, after turning the family into a successful singing troupe, escaped to Italy following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Some story.
The first idea was a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse in which folksy music - specialties of the real von Trapp Family Singers - would be interpolated.
They needed linking songs, and approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who decided that the von Trapp music would have to go (they could obviously build a better mouse Trapp), changed the final destination from Italy to Switzerland (more romantic), and the rest is history and "The Sound of Money."
Strangely, although done in recent years at City Center and by the New York City Opera - and made, with the help of a starry performance in 1965 by Julie Andrews, into one of the all-time most successful Hollywood musicals - it has never enjoyed a full-scale Broadway revival (although it has had a couple of resuscitations in London, where it has always proved even more popular than in New York).
This version is musically a compendium and includes a couple of weakish songs left out of the movie and a couple of weakish songs that replaced them. The rest are, for the most part, cozily well-worn hits, such as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "Edel-weiss."
The production looks good enough to eat - it gains from modern stage technology - and Heidi Ettinger's scenery is as sumptuously pretty (the major producer, appropriately enough, is Hallmark) as Catherine Zuber's costumes are stylish.
As for the staging, which emphasizes somewhat the Nazi aspect of the piece, Susan H. Schulman is as expertly deft as ever. And the performances prove good enough even to gladden people who don't find the musical itself particularly gladdening.
For some reason, I missed Martin's original performance - although I admired the original cast recording - and the first London Maria was not, as I recall, especially appealing. So, for me, perhaps the definitive Maria was Andrews in the movie.
The new Maria, Rebecca Luker, seems, not so foolishly, modeled on Andrews, and she projects the same tomboy energy and chaste romanticism. She's fine, and I also like the brusque Capt. von Trapp given stiff charm and an even stiffer voice by Michael Siberry.
The kids are pretty much perfect - how could they dare not to be? - as are most of the featured performers, including Patricia Conolly and John Curless as the classy help and, particularly, both Jan Maxwell and Fred Applegate as the two sophisticates in a sea of merry naivete.
For me, the one serious disappointment was the singing of Patti Cohenour as the Mother Abbess. In the past, opera singers such as Patricia Neway in New York and Constance Shacklock in London have been cast here, and one probably should have been again.
So, it's something of a necessary guess, but I imagine that if you love "The Sound of Music," this is a "Sound of Music" you will almost certainly love.
If you don't love "The Sound of Music," well, the issue is probably irrelevant, isn't it?
You do realize what you'll be in for, don't you? Musical nuns, mischievous children longing for love, a frosty father who melts into cuddliness through the powers of song, and a virginal heroine who knows just what ditty to break into when she's feeling sad. Plus lilting melodies that saw at the heartstrings and that, whether you admit it or not, you have probably found yourself humming from time to time.
"The Sound of Music," which opened in a revival Thursday night at the Martin Beck Theater, is a known quantity to most Americans, thanks to countless community theater and school productions, as well as the 1965 blockbuster movie that made Julie Andrews a box office queen.
This latest version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration, directed by Susan H. Schulman, is the first to be mounted on Broadway since its original incarnation with Mary Martin in 1959. But despite the refreshing presence of its star, Rebecca Luker, and a perfectly respectable production, it remains the same old cup of treacle. Whether performed in a church basement or a show palace, "The Sound of Music" will always, on some level, work; on another, it will always nauseate.
In her memoirs, Martin described the show as "a triumph of audience over critics." It's true that the reviews were less than ecstatic in 1959. "Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Great Leap Backward" was how Kenneth Tynan described the production in The New Yorker. The consensus was that having ushered the American musical into adulthood with shows like "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," the legendary composer and lyricist had pushed the genre back into the nursery with this operetta-like confection, with an especially wooden book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Rodgers felt compelled to carp back at the carpers in his autobiography. "It's my conviction," he wrote, "that anyone who can't, on occasion, be sentimental about children, home or nature is sadly maladjusted."
On those terms, "The Sound of Music" is a skilled if crude piece of manipulation. The story of Maria (Ms. Luker), a convent novitiate who finds her true calling working as a governess for the seven children of the imperious Captain von Trapp (Michael Siberry), plies the sentimental equivalents of the erotic stimuli of hard-core pornography. Ms. Schulman doesn't risk tampering with this formula, and you shouldn't expect the darkening revisionism brought to the recent revivals of "Carousel" and "The King and I."
The director does underscore the threat of Nazism in the show, which is set in Austria during the Anschluss. Swastikas and outsize Third Reich flags are conspicuous before the evening ends. But this mostly registers as just shorthand for indicating evil against the forces of light embodied by the show's good characters. Indeed, it's worth noting that while the actors playing Nazis tend to be dark and angular, the virtuous von Trapp Family Singers are apple-cheeked and predominantly blond. This is not the imagery of politics, but of fairy tales.
The feeling that what's being portrayed is, after all, a fairy tale land in which sweetness is destined to triumph is underscored by Heidi Ettinger's sets. A vista of Austrian Alps is conjured through layers of scrims that bring to mind those trick postcards that give the illusion of three dimensions. It's slightly cheesy-looking, to tell the truth, but that isn't inappropriate. (The show looks big-budget lavish only in a disproportionately ornate wedding scene that lasts for all of three minutes.)
The production's drop curtain features, in relief, a giant version of those glass balls you shake to make it look as if it's snowing over a miniature landscape, which in this case is an Austrian village. It's the first thing that catches your eye when you enter the theater, and it makes an implicit announcement: You are about to enter a world of artificial picturesqueness.
Ms. Schulman doesn't bring much urgency or spontaneity to that world, but its inhabitants are surprisingly bearable. Ms. Luker has inevitably, if regrettably, shed the stylish sensuality she brought to last season's Encores production of "The Boys From Syracuse." But her light soprano is as fetching as ever, and she makes the part her own with an easygoing, unaffected openness.
Although she pays homage to the most famous of Marias with a few of those bewildered hands-on-the-head gestures that were Ms. Andrews' signature, she doesn't try to match her predecessor's starched poise. If Ms. Andrews was the dream governess, Ms. Luker is much more a girl's girl, and when she romps with her young charges, she seems like one of the gang. This persona doesn't provide the solid charismatic anchor that Ms. Andrews brought to the film, but it does allow Maria to grow visibly into adulthood when she falls in love with the captain.
No actor has ever seemed comfortable playing von Trapp, a widower of military sternness who learns to laugh and love again, and Siberry, who often appears to be doing a Ronald Colman imitation, is no exception. But he's not embarrassing, and there's at least a flicker of chemistry between him and Ms. Luker when they do the little folk dance in which their characters' true feelings are revealed.
All the children are appealing and polished without being like sugary automatons, even though it's hard to eliminate the gag quotient when they're jumping on a bed to the song "My Favorite Things" or imitating a cuckoo clock. Tracy Alison Walsh is especially good as the precocious Brigitta, and Sara Zelle brings a winning, shrewd sobriety to the role of Liesl, the 16-year-old ingenue.
The dulcet-voiced Patti Cohenour at least doesn't overmilk the inspirational wisdom of the Mother Abbess, who has to sing the show's big, unwieldy anthem, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." You know that one, of course. In fact, you probably know all the songs except for two that were eliminated from the movie version: "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It."
These are, for a change, worldly sounding numbers about affluence and political compromise, and they are performed with finesse by Jan Maxwell, as the captain's urbane fiancee, and Fred Applegate, as a charming man without scruples. Both performers inject a welcome if fleeting note of tartness, especially Ms. Maxwell, whose drolly rendered disinterest in the children's frolics is sure to have sympathizers among adults in the audience.
But face it, "The Sound of Music" isn't really for grown-ups. As Tynan put it, it's "a show for children of all ages, from 6 to about 11 1/2." Indeed, as a fablelike adventure story about reclaiming a lost father and gaining a fun-loving mother, it seems to strike deep responsive chords in the very young.
I can personally confirm this, having seen the movie at least half a dozen times when I was 10, and I know every lyric by heart. I can't say I rediscovered that inner child watching this version; frankly, it seemed endless. On the other hand, the little girl two seats down from me had a look of religious rapture on her face.
The sound of music is just fine; it's everything in between that's gone flat. The ultimate Baby Boomer musical, with songs as recognizable as anything in the "Big Chill" soundtrack, "The Sound of Music" hasn't aged particularly well as a piece since its debut in 1959, but its Rodgers & Hammerstein score (nicely sung in this revival) remains a lovely coda to the golden age of Broadway musicals.
The resurrection of the von Trapp Family saga seems to make good commercial sense, given Broadway's newfound outreach to 40-ish parents and their young families. An entire generation got its first big taste of Broadway music via the original cast album, featuring Mary Martin, which spent more than three years on the album sales chart. Their younger siblings were then exposed to the 1965 Julie Andrews film. The songs "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi" and "So Long, Farewell" were as ubiquitous on most playgrounds then as any nursery rhyme. Boomer nostalgia should fuel some good box office for this tasteful, even sedate , revival directed by Susan H. Schulman.
Whether this resolutely old-fashioned show plants seeds in the memories of today's youngsters is another matter altogether. And truth be told, there are plenty of middle-agers who remember "Sound of Music" as the final shovelful of dirt dug from the chasm separating the pre- and post-rock eras, the coup de grace for a wheezing genre that blew away any notion of cultural relevance or hipness. This faithful revival will inspire no reevaluation.
Even those who remember the music fondly are likely to groan or yawn at the hokey, tepid book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Played on the pretty, misty-mountaintop sets (sterling work, as usual, from designer Heidi Ettinger), Schulman's admirably restrained staging cuts through (at least as much as possible) the coyness and cuteness of this adorable-kid-heavy show. Still, the director and her cast are pretty much powerless to make lines like "The Captain won't have music here!" seem any less silly.
The captain (Michael Siberry), of course, is the stern paterfamilias of the motherless von Trapp clan, an Austrian Brady Bunch circa 1938 with vocal chops and an aversion to anything Nazi. Into their sad, regimented lives comes free spirit Maria (Rebecca Luker), the new governess sent over by the local nuns who have given up on trying "to solve a problem" like the unconventional postulant.
Maria (played by Luker with more sweetness than spark) quickly wins the hearts of the seven love-starved children, from tiny Gretl (Ashley Rose Orr) to the 16-going-on-17 Liesl (Sara Zelle). In no time she has them singing and wearing play clothes (!), much to the consternation of the widower captain, who has distanced himself from the kids since the death years earlier of his wife.
Maria's radiance soon melts the icy aorta of von Trapp himself, and before the brood can finish singing "The hills are alive," the old man himself is chiming in. The hackneyed book wastes no time on making believable von Trapp's transformation from Grinch to Fred MacMurray, and Siberry's stiff performance doesn't smooth things over.
While the first act concentrates on the domestic melodrama (including a subplot about a rich widow trying to marry her fortune with von Trapp), the second act broadens its scope to the political, as the Nazis move into Austria and demand that von Trapp fight the bad fight. The clan, of course, escapes the Germans by performing at a local concert and fleeing the auditorium before the houselights go up.
The revival plays up the Nazi threat by having the final concert recital performed in front of three stage-to-ceiling Nazi flags, a striking visual gambit undermined by the cheery performances of the von Trapp Singers. Little, if any, nervous tension is suggested by a family performing under the watchful eye of armed Nazis, as if the director didn't want anything to interfere with "The Lonely Goatherd."
And frankly, Schulman's approach is an understandable one in terms of protecting this musical. Nothing --- not dramatic credibility, and certainly not the horror of history --- should interfere with a lineup of songs that is by far the best thing the show has going for it. This is, after all, "The Sound of Music," not "Schindler's List," and "Maria," "I Have Confidence," "Edelweiss" and, of course, the title song --- all well staged and performed here --- make much else on stage forgivable. Even "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," a second-rate rehash of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel," takes an undeniable hold on the audience.
The production is staffed with fine singers, from the Gregorian-chanting nuns to each of the von Trapps. Luker's clear, pretty voice is the strongest aspect of her performance --- her acting is merely passable --- while Siberry, in the thankless role of the father, does little to humanize this stuffed lederhosen. Only Jan Maxwell, as the captain's wealthy, urbane fiancee, Elsa, brings more to her role than the essentials.
The physical production is quite attractive, if not all-out spectacular, with Ettinger's sets shifting from the shadowy interior of the abbey (well lit by Paul Gallo) to the wedding-cake exterior of the von Trapp home and vast expanse of purple-mountain backdrop. Catherine Zuber's period costumes maintain the production's poise, and Michael Lichtefeld's choreography of waltzes and kids' dances blends in nicely.
So will real kids waltz into the theater? Yes, if their parents have anything to say about it. But only an abbess could believe that children enthralled by the parade of fantastic animals at "The Lion King" will be equally taken with queues of chanting nuns. Even Mom and Dad might fidget a bit before that final "so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye."