October 20, 2011

It was 46 years ago that the hills came alive with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," but it seems audiences are still captivated by the songs and the story of the von Trapp family, driven from their Austrian homeland during World War II.

Whether it's the love story between Captain Georg and Maria von Trapp, or the story of a family risking it all to stay together and preserve what makes life worth living for, 23 year-old Sofia von Trapp has been amazed to find so many fans of the 1965 film, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Sofia and her siblings, Justin, Amanda and Melanie, will perform some of the a cappella harmonies made famous by the their grandfather and his older brothers and sisters Sunday at the Belleville Congregational Church.

They love that the story of their family has touched so many hearts, the siblings say.

"I remember watching it for the first time, but I think I didn't really know it was about our family," Sofia said. "I remember somebody explaining it to me. But I didn't realize the impact 'The Sound of Music' had on the world until we started performing."

Everyone who's seen the musical or movie knows the story of the von Trapps. They fled Austria to seek a new life for themselves in America and settled in Vermont. The family later took their talents on the road and gave performances.

But, less known are the personal stories about the von Trapps and what became of them once they arrived in the United States, Sofia said. Like most families, their stories and photographs were passed on from generation to generation.

Then, one day someone had an idea to give their story new life.

It all began with a CD created by Sofia and her siblings and given as a gift to their ailing grandfather, Werner, the second-oldest son of Georg von Trapp and Agathe Whitehead.

"Our grandfather actually was an inspiration for us to start singing," Sofia said. "He used to teach us Austrian folk songs."

When Werner suffered a stroke roughly 10 years ago, his grandchildren cheered him up by singing some of his favorite songs and recording them.

The CD was passed around, and before long the grandchildren were approached about taking their family's songs on the road. Since then, the foursome have traveled to such locations as Dubai, Rwanda, Belgium and Australia.

Photos of them on their website document appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The View" and Japanese television, among others. "It kind of took off from there," said Sofia. "I was 13 at the time and my brother Justin was 7. I'm 23 now. We started at a little festival that had maybe 30 people, and now we're singing with symphonies and able to perform at the Sydney Opera House and with the Boston Pops. It's amazing how we've had so many people behind us."

Their grandfather died four years ago, and their great-aunt Agathe — better known to audiences as Liesl in the film adaptation of their story — died last year.

Agathe had served as a great source of inspiration for the children, teaching them unique German and Austrian folk songs and attending their concerts.

"We were really close to her and we sang a lot of her songs," Sofia said.

The siblings are intent on continuing to sing the songs Maria and Georg von Trapp and their children became famous for. They are as captivated by their family's story, it seems, as the rest of the world.

"I think a lot of people can relate to it," she said, attributing the success of the film as much to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Andrews and Plummer, as to her family's story. "But it's really a message that everybody really loves. It brings them back to their childhood, or back to a good place in their hearts, and there's a lot of happiness in that story. We see it everywhere we perform, how 'The Sound of Music' has encapsulated that joy. I'm really grateful (the film) was about our family."

The siblings will perform a mix of Austrian folk songs, more modern compilations — and enough songs from the 1965 film to satisfy a true fan.

Sofia said audiences will be treated to stories passed on within the family of what the older generation did after escaping Nazi encroachment on their homeland. Little stories and vignettes from their lives — complete with comparisons to the movie — will round out the show.

The von Trapp children's appearance is part of the Belleville Roots Concert Series to raise money for the preservation and restoration of Belleville Church's historic buildings.

What: Benefit concert by the von Trapp children

When: Sunday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m.

Where: Meeting House, Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport

How much: $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and younger. Advance tickets can be purchased at the church, Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport, or online at or Remaining tickets will be sold at the door for $25 for adults and $10 for children.

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