The Sound of Music History
“Let’s start at the very beginning…”
A Look at the World’s Most Beloved Musical
By Bert Fink, Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization
In 1958 Mary Martin, the eternally youthful star of South Pacific and Peter Pan, was involved in an exciting new project: she and husband-producer Richard Halliday had teamed up with the distinguished playwriting team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to create a stage play based on a German film, “Die Trapp Familie,” that told the true-life story of the von Trapps, an Austrian family that had fled their homeland following the Nazi Anschluss of World War II and found haven in America.
Of course, even in a play Mary Martin would want to sing; so Lindsay & Crouse planned their script to include a sampling of the religious and folk songs the von Trapps had actually sung. Along the way, Martin asked her good friends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II whether they might be willing to write a song especially for her to sing in this new play, just as they had written a ditty, “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” for Helen Hayes to sing in Anita Loos’ 1946 play Happy Birthday.
Rodgers & Hammerstein loved working with Mary Martin. After all, they had produced her sensationally successful National Tour of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, and followed it up by writing what would become her legendary performance in their own South Pacific. But mixing a new song alongside traditional favorites? No thank you. Rodgers & Hammerstein had a better idea: why not let them write an entirely new score for this story – as a musical? That is, if the team already in place would be willing to wait a year since Rodgers & Hammerstein were already working on Flower Drum Song. The flattering – and wise – decision from Messrs. Martin, Halliday, Lindsay, Crouse and co-producer Leland Hayward: “We’ll wait.”
The result was THE SOUND OF MUSIC and it represented a challenge of sorts for both sets of writers: for Rodgers & Hammerstein, it would mark the only work in their partnership in which Hammerstein’s skills were confined to the lyrics only, while Lindsay & Crouse shifted gears from playwrights to musical librettists.
However, this quartet enjoyed a warm and fruitful collaboration that was not only pleasant, but speedy: working from Lindsay & Crouse’s outline, Rodgers & Hammerstein started writing the score in March 1959. Rehearsals began in August, New Haven hosted the world premiere in October, and Broadway had a new musical hit by November.
Directed by Vincent J. Donehue, with musical numbers staged by Joe Layton, THE SOUND OF MUSIC co-starred Theodore Bikel as Captain von Trapp, Patricia Neway as the Mother Abbess, and Kurt Kazner as Max. (A year into the run, a newcomer named Jon Voight stepped into the role of Rolf.) With a $5 top ticket price, THE SOUND OF MUSIC boasted an advance sale of over $2 million ($30 million by today’s standards). Audiences adored Martin and took the musical to their hearts. It ran for 1,443 performances and earned seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The original cast album earned a Gold Record and the Grammy Award.
In 1961, with the musical still going strong on Broadway, a U.S. National Tour was launched starring Florence Henderson, and a London production opened at the Palace Theatre, with Jean Bayless and Roger Dann in the lead roles. (Ensconced in the Palace Theatre for more than six years, it holds the record as the longest running American musical in London’s West End.)
Since the beginning, THE SOUND OF MUSIC has proven to be the most universal of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musicals, and it has played on countless stages all over the world. Between 1996 and 1998 alone, major international productions. Have been presented in Britain, South Africa, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Peru, Israel and Greece. With its irresistible score, large female chorus and great roles for children, THE SOUND OF MUSIC has been a consistent favorite in the community and high school theatre circuits as well; in the U.S. and Canada, over 500 productions are given every year.
And then there is … The Movie.
In 1965 the motion picture version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC was released and made Hollywood history. Directed by Robert Wise, with a score revised by Rodgers (Hammerstein had died in 1960 and so Rodgers composed both music and lyrics for two songs added to the film – “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”), and a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, THE SOUND OF MUSIC boasted a dream cast: Julie Andrews as Maria, Christopher Plummer as the Captain, Eleanor Parker as Elsa, Peggy Wood as the Mother Abbess and Charmian Carr as Liesl. Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, THE SOUND OF MUSIC has become the most popular movie musical ever made.
From 1965 to 1972 it was All Time Box Office Champ, according to Variety. To date it is the highest-ranking musical on the list of top grossing films; a survey by New York Magazine (7/22/96), which adjusted box office grosses and attendance to contemporary prices and current U.S. population placed THE SOUND OF MUSIC directly behind “Gone with the Wind” as the two biggest films of all time, giving THE SOUND OF MUSIC an adjusted accumulated U.S. gross of $944,000,000. Following the original release of four years, the film had major U.S. re-releases in 1972 and 1990; it remains popular on the college and revival circuit as well. In August of ’96 it was the season finale of the third annual outdoor film festival in New York City’s Bryant Park, sponsored by HBO, where it attracted a record crowd of 12,000.
From large screen to small, THE SOUND OF MUSIC has also triumphed on television and home video. First broadcast on ABC-TV in 1976, it is currently aired annually and exclusively on NBC. (Its 1995 airing commemorated the film’s 30th anniversary with a special, four-hour Easter broadcast hosted by Julie Andrews.)
As one of the first movies issued on home video, THE SOUND OF MUSIC hit the Billboard Top 40 video sales chart shortly after its release in November of 1979 and has never been less than #3 in Fox Video’s internal sales charts, with numerous reissues over the years. Its final reissue this century was launched in August ’96, quickly hitting #1 on Video Scan’s sales charts after only a few weeks. During this final sale period, the video clocked its 300th week on Billboard’s Top 40 chart, solidifying its status as the longest-running best seller on the list.
Four major recordings of THE SOUND OF MUSIC are currently on the market; by far the most successful is the original motion picture soundtrack starring Julie Andrews, which has sold 11 million units worldwide to date. The soundtrack is currently on reissue (RCA Victor) in a newly mastered recording with new packaging and liner notes.
Also available are the original Broadway cast recording starring Mary Martin (Sony) and a 1988 studio recording starring Frederica von Stade (Tel-Arc.) In both its film soundtrack and cast album formats, the score has been recorded in dozens of languages. Its score – perhaps the most cherished in American musical theater – is visited constantly by vocalists and instrumentalists; “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss” and the title song have been recorded by many artists over the years.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC has inspired a long line of merchandise over the years, and enthusiasm from licensees has never flagged. Recently, in addition to the various recordings, videos and laser discs, fans could acquire: various editions of the vocal selections and songbooks (Williamson Music), a line of commemorative plates (The Bradford Exchange) and Music Boxes (Ardleigh-Elliot), a “Barbie as Maria” doll (Mattel), THE SOUND OF MUSIC doll collection (Mme. Alexander), My Favorite Things, an illustrated children’s book (Simone & Schuster), and THE SOUND OF MUSIC: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie, a soft-cover photo history of the movie (Contemporary Books).
More then a hit show or Cultural phenomenon, THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a rarity that has touched the hearts of it’s audiences since the very beginning. Evidently, it meant a great deal to the four men who wrote it, too; Rodgers seems to speak for them all when, in a letter to Lindsay’s wife Dorothy years later, he called THE SOUND OF MUSIC “one of the happiest experiences of his theatrical life.”