the sound of music -- 5/5/23

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of The Musical by Laurie Winer. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was one of the most successful musicals of all time:

"Middle-class Americans growing up in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, … had no choice but to know much of [The Sound of Music] by heart. While critics were busy detesting the film, it always held its child audience rapt, followed by their offspring, and then theirs. To critics, questions like 'How do you keep a wave upon the sand?' and 'How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?' seemed treacly metaphors that revealed more about the author's sentimentality than they did about the uncontainable curiosity of youth. But to actual children, these are delightful questions, delightfully posed. Kenneth Tynan was not wrong when he wrote in the New Yorker that the show was 'for children of all ages, from six to about 11½.' He could not foresee the cultural veneration those children would bestow on the musical.

"Starting in the late 1960s, The Sound of Music fulfilled a purpose un­foreseen by Rodgers or Hammerstein: as a balm to the children of what we now call 'blended families' (or those about to go in the blender). Partly be­cause of the no-fault divorce laws of the 1970s, divorce rates more than doubled from 1960 to 1980. Approximately half of the children born to married parents in the 1970s were eventually told it was 'not their fault.'

"For any lonely child whose family has been torn asunder by divorce, substance abuse, or worse, The Sound of Music offers an irresistible fantasy --­ lots of siblings and the appearance of a kind stranger with a cute haircut and a guitar who makes everything okay by teaching everyone to sing in harmony. There's a scene in the 2013 musical Fun Home in which a child escapes into a fantasy musical number based on her favorite TV show, The Partridge Family. In the imagined version of her life, her father stops calling her mother 'a stupid cow,' and she and her parents and siblings perform an up-tempo number titled 'Raincoat of Love.' All the child's fears disappear for the duration of that number. That's what The Sound of Music did (and maybe still does) for any young person trapped in an untenable situation.

"Piling fantasia on top of fantasy, The Sound of Music's healed family works as a team, become singing stars, and outwit the Nazis while an ador­ing audience clamors for more of them at a music festival.

"The Sound of Music was so successful that it saved 20th Century Fox from being brought down by the budgetary fiasco of Cleopatra, a $44 mil­lion film spectacular that even its star, Elizabeth Taylor, found vulgar. Was there nothing that Rodgers and Hammerstein could not do? Today, adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music is the third-highest-grossing film of all time. It's considered the most successful musical ever filmed.

"The 'sing-alongs' started in 1999 at the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. With audience members dressing up as golden rays of sun or brown paper packages tied up with string, they participated in coordinated sing-alongs in front of movie screens all over the world, including Australia, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia, and, of course, the United States. As the lyrics scroll across the screen, raucous crowds sing, talk back, hiss, and offer all manner of witty comment. To mark the movie's fiftieth anniversary in 2015, the Hollywood Bowl produced its fifteenth sing-along, prompting the Los Angeles Times to write, 'It was a sell­out. Let me underline that remarkable point. More than 17,000 seats were filled for a half-century-old film that probably 95 percent of the audience had seen multiple times.'

"For that same anniversary, Lady Gaga performed a medley of the show's songs ('The Sound of Music,' 'My Favorite Things,' 'Edelweiss,' and 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain') at the Academy Awards. With her flaxen tresses flowing down the front of a diaphanous white halter gown, Gaga raised two tattooed arms at the triumphant finish. She cut a twenty-first-century path between parody and veneration, showing that the two can coexist in perfect harmony."



Laurie Winer


Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of The Musical


Yale University Press


Copyright 2023 by Laure Winer


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