Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Sound Of Music

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2008)

I’m pretty sure the first film I ever saw in a movie theatre was The Sound Of Music. I think it was in 1970, when I was 4 – in those low-tech days, of course, a movie’s big-screen life didn’t necessarily end after a month or so. I don’t remember anything about the experience beyond the fact of it having happened. The second movie I saw was Disney’s The Aristocats, and that was really the start of my movie mania. I ran round for days singing “Everybody Wants To Be A Cat” and became an avid collector of all things Disney – in those low-tech days, of course, they hadn’t yet figured out how to squeeze you dry. I guess the Disney thing lasted five years or so and then morphed into a science-fiction mania, before broadening out into what you see paraded here every week.

Heston Of Musicals

I saw The Sound Of Music, or bits of it anyway, many more times on TV, as we all did. I guess that was courtesy of my parents, or maybe through some Manchurian Candidate kind of plot. I don’t think I’ve watched it for decades now, but I can unspool big chunks of it in my head. As a hard-bitten urban type never seen without a fedora and a cigarette, I guess you wouldn’t expect me to have it on my desert island list. I do like musicals, but my taste runs more to The Band Wagon and Funny Face - unashamed, elegant genre material. Julie Andrews has never been interesting to me except when used as a focus of her husband Blake Edwards’ passive-aggressive experiments (particularly in 10 and S.O.B.). I guess The Sound Of Music is kind of like the Charlton Heston of musicals, with the strengths and limitations that implies.

I’ve always had some lingering dissatisfaction with the material too, but never bothered to think about it in detail. And then I saw the new Mirvish stage production. I think I’ve said before that I’m happy being a movie guy, but I can’t deny I take away a greater number of specifically memorable experiences from live theatre than I do from cinema. But then, I don’t go anything like as often. Anyway, the musical works. An astonishing crowd-pleaser, it couldn’t be any smoother – wonderful design and coordination, immaculate performances, well-judged overall pace and handling of tone. My emotions went this way and that, exactly as they should.

This isn’t a criticism, it’s merely a personal reaction, but I’m not that susceptible to live theatre that attempts (seemingly) to emulate the impact of cinema. For example, the title song takes place on a stage-spanning, monumentally-crafted green hill: it’s stunning and eye-popping, but I couldn’t help finding it self-defeating. I mean, no one in the audience is going to forget they’re not actually on a mountain, and the literal-mindedness robs you of the pleasure of evocation, of how through lighting and movement and sheer belief an almost empty stage becomes the most complex of logistical and psychological spaces. But maybe, in this context, I’m like someone who moans about TV being inferior to radio as a stimulant of the imagination. (Although, I swear, as they start their climactic trek up the mountain to freedom, with the stage tilting to embody their climb, I was put in mind of a spaceship taking off. It can’t be just me – my wife said the same thing afterwards).

The Nun and I

All of that aside, I really enjoyed it. But I also realized something that’s always held me back. It’s the very title: The Sound Of Music. Obviously, it’s not very specific. But Rogers and Hammerstein titles almost always were: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, The King And I. By that logic, the Von Trapp story should have been called Nazis In Austria! or The Nun and I.

Except that actually it is specific, because – as I perceived more clearly watching the stage show than I recall from the film – the true subject really is the redemptive and transformative power of music. The Mirvish production’s most moving moment I think, comes when Captain von Trapp, returning to his children and his gloomy house after a prolonged absence, furious at how they’ve loosened up under their new governess, melts on hearing them sing in unison (the title song again), eventually signaling his emotional reawakening by joining in (actor Burke Moses doesn’t have the fullest voice, but he’s often more poignantly expressive than the lead actress, Elicia MacKenzie). After that the house fills with music again; love follows, and a way to transcend the German occupiers (and, by the way, to this day is there anything that more immediately and intuitively chills a stage than a swastika?).

Although this moment “works,” it depends entirely on our comfort with the conventions at play. Of course we haven’t really just seen a dramatization of the power of music, because for the last hour plus, we’ve never gone more than five minutes without it. The kids are singing within five minutes of their first appearance; then in their next scene, they sing again. Of course we understand that some of these songs dramatize what are actually conversations (or perhaps inner reflections) within the world being represented (presumably the Mother Superior tells Maria to climb every mountain rather than sings it to her), while others are genuine performances (the family’s appearance at the Salzburg Festival). Others appear to lie somewhere in between (the “Do-Re-Mi” number).

Go See It!

That’s true of many putting-on-a-show musicals – my favourite The Band Wagon is exactly the same kind of mishmash. But The Band Wagon is in part about how personal and public personae dissolve in the joy of pure unpretentious performance: the lack of distinction is part of its point. The Sound Of Music, by contrast, is about the superiority of music over silence. But how can you dramatize that in a show that allows no silence?

Once I focused on this point, it brought home for me some of my other reservations, such as how the relationship between Maria and von Trapp is really too condensed to make their falling in love at all compelling (and I’m enough of a feminist to be underwhelmed by the prospect of a marriage in which decision- and concession-making will clearly not come close to being equally divided). Actually Maria surprisingly fades in the second act, being not that central to depicting how music works its ultimate magic.

I said I didn’t mean to criticize, and I meant it. I engaged with the stage production in a way I never have with the movie. I actually had thoughts about The Sound Of Music other than: Oh look, it’s on again. I realize this may not be the kind of endorsement to get the Mirvish organization – or you - excited. But I say - go see it!

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