Looking for a Valentine's Day card in the supermarket, I instead snapped up the new Time/Life magazine's glossy anniversary edition of "The Sound of Music: 50 Years Later, the Hills Are Still Alive." I've been intimate with this enduring musical longer than any romance. Its music accompanies every stage of my life like a soundtrack--or a faithful partner.
When the film version of The Sound of Music catapulted Julie Andrews from dissed Broadway star to Hollywood diva, it was 1965 and America was roiled with racial tensions. What better time for Rodgers and Hammerstein to echo songs that defied and defeated Hitler's dark pursuit of racial purity? When I first saw the musical, I was living in the South; and my Virginia high school was finally being integrated.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed everything, including our music. On buses, our transistor radios played hit anthems, with James Brown shouting, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" or Sam Cooke promising, "A Change is Gonna Come." With Motown's Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Supremes--blacks and whites sang the same songs. And so many of us mobbed the same movies, that it made The Sound of Music a musical juggernaut.
Why in such a tumultuous time did a non-hip musical take hold? In my Northern Virginia theater, I sat with a trio of black girls from my basketball team, which was now almost all African-American. On the court, these girls defended me like bodyguards from the athletic race riots that often broke out. Riots also flared up in classrooms, the cafeteria, and parking lots. Sometimes going to school was navigating a war zone. (Like today's teens, but without the automatic weapons.) In the Sixties we had safer and more sophisticated weapons: fists and sports, protest marches and songs.
Sitting with my basketball teammates, I also watched The Sound of Music through their eyes and ears. When wayward, singing nun, Maria propels herself into her first frightening interview with the von Trapp family by declaring, "I have confidence . . . in confidence alone . . ." we all found ourselves humming along. This was a song that could accompany our next anti-Vietnam protest or civil rights march. The lyrics were sunny and hopeful; but the subtext was conquering our worst fears.
By the time we got to the reprise of "Climb Every Mountain" the mother superior was a mother to us all. Weren't we also young and trying to climb out of a history of hurt, of injustice, of a Civil War that was still very much the walking bass of the South? Weren't we, like the von Trapp singers, escaping the trap of racism? At the end of the musical, we walked out of the theater arm-in-arm with more determination to sing our way as strong women to a better world.
Years went by in my long relationship with the Sound of Music when it was simply in the background of my own personal history. I'd sing a rousing chorus of "My Favorite Things" with my own siblings at family reunions. My local singing group would perform "How do You Solve A problem Like Maria?" in four-part harmonies; I'd teach my niece how to hear harmonies with the elegant thirds of "Do Re-Mi." I'd create CD compilations called "Life is a Musical" and often include a cut from Sound of Music. And I'd hum the "Edelweiss" waltz like a mantra when I was feeling blue or stuck in Seattle commuter traffic.
In my office, one of my co-workers, Roy, confided in me that he was very troubled by his daughter's new boyfriend. The kid was a punk rocker whose leather, tattoos, and cruel piercings practically shouted his immoral intentions. One night when the scary boyfriend came calling, the couple shut themselves into the basement rec room. Roy expected the worst: date rape or maybe even murder. Roy protectively grabbed a baseball bat and stormed down the stairs to save his daughter. Kicking open the door, baseball bat raised above his head, Roy heard:
"The hills are alive . . . with the sound of music . . ." and saw his daughter sitting demurely holding hands with the punk rocker, as they both sang along with Julie.
My own lifelong romance with The Sound of Music also includes a sing-along. Recently I watched the film in the traditional New Year's sing-along at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater. I attended the nostalgic gala with a new lover, feeling a little silly and shy about my much longer love affair with the film and its music. I well knew The New York Times mocked the film as "cosy cum-corny."
Nervously I waited for the dreaded dismissal of my musical taste. Instead, during the very first scene when the nuns sing their stirring "Alleluias," my date took my hand and held it during the entire film. Quite cozy.
I'm not the only one married to The Sound of Music for decades. A recent NBC live revival of the musical attracted "colossal numbers" of 18.47 million, making it one of the network's biggest non-sports events. Interestingly, it wasn't just those of us who grew up with the songs; the coveted 18-49 demographic was NBC's largest since the 2009 "ER" finale. The best thing about this revival was Moyer's Captain von Trapp role with just a hint of his "True Blood" eternal vampire lover. And of course, Audra McDonald hit it out-of-the-park with her soaring "Climb Every Mountain"--now on my personal iTunes playlist.
This year in many of my Valentine's Day cards to family and friends, I'll include a gift certificate for The Sound of Music's 50th Anniversary edition. I'll inscribe my cards with what Christopher Plummer said in the Time/Life tribute about singing with his life-long friend, Julie Andrews--like "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card, every day." Is life really a musical? My long love affair with The Sound of Music suggests that it is. For better or worse, this music will always be one of my favorite things.~
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books, including the recent I Want to Be Left Behind, which independent booksellers chose as a "Great Read" and "Indie Next." Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir is just out and featured on Oprah.com. For more: www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com