NINA METZ, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
November 25, 2011

If you go to the website for the Trapp Family Lodge, a resort in Stowe, Vt., you can click on a series of links about the family's history, where 97-year-old Maria von Trapp (the third child born to Captain von Trapp and his first wife) offers up a few choice memories.

"The Germans were the first to turn our mother's book into a movie," she says, referring to the memoirs of her stepmother, the Maria von Trapp, who wrote "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" in 1949. The German film "The Trapp Family" (English translation) was made in 1956 and was wildly popular in Germany; two years later it was followed by "Die Trapp Familie in Amerika." Call those a footnote in cinematic history, overshadowed by the enormous success of the 20th Century Fox version of the story, 1965's "The Sound of Music."

Based on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1959 Broadway musical of the same name, the film banked nearly $160 million the year it came out. (It cost a little more than $8 million to make.) But unlike most classic films from a bygone era, the movie still earns box office dollars today thanks to the phenomenon known as "The Sing-a-long Sound of Music," the campy nostalgic self-explanatory event that returns to the Music Box Theatre for the eighth year this weekend.

"It began sort of organically at a gay and lesbian film festival in London in the late '90s, where the idea was to show the movie with the lyrics on the screen," said Bert Fink, the PR man for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which handles the copyright for the stage version of the show.

"A very smart London film producer saw an opportunity," according to Fink, "and quickly set up the singalong screenings at the Prince Charles Cinema, which is a delightfully seedy cinema in Leicester Square in the heart of London's West End, and believe it or not, it is has been playing there ever since." Costumes are encouraged and everyone gets a goody bag with props, including a sprig of edelweiss. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization heard about the show through friends, and sent president and executive director Ted Chapin to England to check it out.

Here's how Fink remembers Chapin's assessment: "At times it's raunchy and silly, but it's ultimately reverential, and these are clearly people who love the movie, and we should encourage it.' "

Long a holiday TV staple from the '70s onward, I have vivid memories of taping all three hours of the movie on VHS back in the '80s, careful to pause for commercial breaks. Though it was filmed on location in Salzburg, Austria, and features lead performances from a Brit (Julie Andrews) and a Canadian (Christopher Plummer), the film -- about the nun-in-training who falls in love with the Austrian naval captain while working as governess to his sprawling brood -- has always felt like a quintessential piece of Americana. In a savvy move, the Music Box schedules its singalong event each year at Thanksgiving, a holiday that could really use a few more bonding alternatives to food and football.

ABC currently holds the broadcast rights, and the film was just released on Blu-ray. But I don't think studio executives could have predicted that "The Sound of Music" would find a profitable second life back on the big screen. ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show" notwithstanding, "The Sing-a-long Sound of Music" was the first to actually strategize and organize the interactive singing component.)

"It is the most successful movie musical of all time," Fink told me. "People know these songs whether or not they know the musical or the movie." That's kind of remarkable.

Why does this movie work so well as a singalong? Because the score is so darn singable, I'd argue, from the title song ("The hills are alive!") on.

The stage musical, of course, came first (Rodgers wrote the music, Hammerstein the lyrics), and you can catch a first-rate revival at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace; Tribune theater critic Chris Jones gave the show a top-rated four stars. "The 'Do-Re-Mi' here is a bring-the-house-down revelation," he wrote, "and that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd write." (For ticket information, go to www.drurylaneaokbrook.com.)

"Oscar Hammerstein was dying while he was writing 'The Sound of Music,' and we don't quite know how much of that he knew," said Fink. "He was diagnosed with cancer, and in those days sometimes you told the family but you didn't always tell the patient. But he was certainly a very insightful man, and he must have known, when he and Rodgers were writing the score in the spring of 1959, on some level he must have known that this was his last musical. The very last song that he ever wrote was 'Edelweiss.' " That piece of information makes me want to cry right here all over my keyboard; what a gorgeous song to go out on.

It's worth noting that the stage musical and the movie version differ in slight but noticeable ways. Songs appear in different scenes (most notably "My Favorite Things," which comes much earlier in the theater production).

That's not uncommon when adapting works from stage to screen, although it took some trial and error before Rodgers and Hammerstein figured out how to best serve the film versions of their shows -- namely, to let someone else produce them. "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958, which they produced themselves) aren't their best movies, and they have a tendency to feel a bit "stagey," in Chapin's words.

Director Robert Wise, who won an Oscar in 1961 for "West Side Story," was brought on board, and he would go on win an Oscar for "The Sound of Music," as well.

"Wise started as a film editor who worked on 'Citizen Kane,' and I think the more you look at 'The Sound of Music,' the more you realize that it's really brilliantly shot and edited," said Chapin. "If you go to Salzburg, and you take 'The Sound of Music' tour, you realize they used pretty much every beautiful vista in Salzburg in the movie. And of course it's become big business there."

Which is a funny thing, because for a long time, Salzburgers wanted nothing to do with the musical or the movie. "There are several interesting reasons for that," according to Fink, "and one is that the story deals with Austria's role in World War II. It's unflattering to Austria, which is still coming to terms with its complicity with the Third Reich. Plus there were some people who saw it as Hollywood kitsch, or an American appropriation of their story, so they simply kept their distance."

That's started to change just recently. Last month, the Salzburg State Theater opened a German-language production of the show, and it was the first time ever that the musical has been staged in the city where the story is set. Along with Fink, one of the von Trapp children was in the audience for the opening night.

"The real von Trapps, who we work with quite a lot, they love to talk about the fact and the fiction of the story," said Fink. "It is absolutely true that Maria made play clothes out of the curtains. It's also true that the captain used a bosun's whistle to gather the whole family because it was such a large estate."

That's confirmed by daughter Maria on the website of the Trapp Family Lodge. That darn whistle, she explains, was a leftover from her father's days as a U-boat commander where "the howling winds and roaring sea" would drown out a voice.

"In Salzburg, we had a large house and large gardens, so he used that whistle to call us instead of his voice, which we might not have heard. Each one of us had a special call: Rupert was one low followed by one high note; Agathe's call was one low and two high notes; Maria (me) was one low and three highs...When we heard this, we stormed to him, but we never had to march or stand at attention." (By the way, the real names of the von Trapp children are different from those in "The Sound of Music.")

Maria, it turns out, was the catalyst for introducing her father, a widower, to his future bride: "As a result of scarlet fever, I was too sickly to walk the three miles to school every day, and the doctor advised that I stay home. This condition brought Maria Augusta Kutschera to teach me. ... She came to us as my teacher and after three years became our second mother. On Nov. 26, 1927, they were married and would have three children," all three of whom survive, in addition to Maria.

Incidentally, the great-grandchildren of Capt. and Maria von Trapp are currently touring as the Von Trapp Children and they come to the Paramount Theatre in Aurora on Dec. 4 for a concert that includes holiday songs as well as selections from "The Sound of Music." (For more information go to paramountaurora.com.)

All of the actors who played the original von Trapp children in the film are still alive as well, and they gathered in Chicago this time last year, along with Andrews and Plummer, for a reunion on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Chapin was in Chicago as well to facilitate, and he noted that, in a group of former child actors, there was not a single drug bust or an arrest among them.

And Winfrey got some good information during the show. "Every time (the helicopter with the cameraman) went around me," Andrews said about the iconic spin of the opening scene on the hillside, "it just leveled me to the grass," an experience that left her "spitting mud and hay and everything else."

Plummer's participation on Winfrey's show was particularly unusual, according to Chapin. "He's dined out on dissing the movie, so I think he feels a little divided about embracing it."

The problem? "He is one of the finest Shakespearean actors on the face of the earth, and he knows that when he dies the obituary is going to say: 'Christopher Plummer, Capt. von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."' It is by far and away the most well-known thing he is associated with, and at the end of the day he doesn't think his performance is all that good. And if you look at the film, I can see why he feels that."

The night before their Oprah interview, the group sat down for dinner at Pierrot Gourmet, the intimate cafe next to the Peninsula hotel. Chapin later blogged his observations:

"Julie arrived first, and greeted them all just like -- well, the mother would. Elegant small tables had been set up down the middle of the restaurant, each with four discreet chairs. An unmistakable voice said, 'Let's pull these tables all together so we can sit and talk.' Once in charge of these children, always in charge of these children. So what that the children are now in their 50s and one in her 60s."

Not surprisingly, Plummer's entrance caused a moment of awkwardness.

"Keeping entirely in character, the autocratic head of the family came in last," Chapin wrote. "Hovering slightly by the doorway with his cheerful manager, Chris Plummer seemed reluctant to throw himself in. But several of the movie kids came over, hands outstretched to reintroduce themselves. A good sport, he walked over to the group and joined in. Seeing him with Julie, you realize he really has always been a little bit in love with her, and he was as pleased as ever to see her."

"The Sing-a-long Sound of Music" is at the Music Box Theatre Friday-Sunday. For more information go to www.musicboxtheatre.com.

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