A wonderful evening out to see the stage version of The Sound of Music. This was a much better production than the last one we saw some years ago. In part this was due to the presence of Connie Fisher as Maria.
Fisher was the winner of the 2006 BBC show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? in which the lead for a new Andrew Lloyd Webber production of The Sound of Music was chosen by public vote in a Pop Idol/X-Factor type competition. Of course these programmes were originally launched by the BBC in an attempt to provide some sort of rival to the Simon Cowell machine. There have been three subsequent series to find a Joseph (for Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat), a Nancy (for Oliver) and a Dorothy (for The Wizard of Oz). As rivals to the Cowell machine one would have to judge them all failures, as their viewing figures have never started to approach those for X-Factor/Britain’s Got Talent. We only watched the first one, partly from antipathy to Lloyd-Webber, partly from a desire not to spend too much time watching talent shows (regular readers will know we watch at least some of all the Cowell productions), and partly from lack of interest in the musicals concerned, as I am not a fan of either Joseph or Oliver. This latter objection is interesting because in fact it means that I would not have been concerned with any comparisons, where in the case of The Sound Of Music and The Wizard of Oz there are Andrews and Garland. But these are different cases. My love of Oz is purely a love of Garland. Without her I do not think I would be very interested at all, though I can see that the film is technically innovative and interesting : I have never seen the stage show so cannot really judge it. But I do know that I would constantly be replaying every song, every gesture, every facial expression against Garland – and indeed, however unfair this may be, against Liza Minnelli, who is the nearest I can ever get to ‘seeing’ her mother and is the greatest live performer I have ever seen. This not to say that I necessarily hate every version of Over The Rainbow that I hear – Leona’s blew me away – but the bar is extraordinarily high.
This set of circumstances is not the same for Andrews. I really like her voice, but I do not love it in the way I do Garland’s. On the other hand I love film of The Sound of Music in a way I do not love The Wizard of Oz. But there is much more to The Sound of Music than just Andrews. It is extremely well-directed (still one of my favourite openings to any film) with very high production values. This is not to deny that Andrews is superb in terms of both singing and acting. She is certainly irretrievably linked to the movie role, and I would view any idea of a remake with horror. But I can contemplate a different stage Maria in the way I cannot contemplate a different stage Dorothy. All this is compounded by the fact that the stage and film versions of The Sound of Music are significantly different: I am certainly no expert on this (and there is a whole book on the subject http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sound-Music-Companion-Stage-Screen/dp/1862057508) but in this production I noted quite a few of the changes (and I am not sure that all these were incorporated in the previous stage version I saw – presumably this is something of a moveable feast)…
- My Favourite Things is sung as a duet between Maria and the Mother Abbess (this works less well dramatically than having it as Maria and the children but the Mother Abbess in this production was a very good singer so it was a bonus vocally)
- following on from this the song Maria sings to calm the children during the thunder-storm is The Lonely Goatherd – much my least favourite song – which means that the puppet show was lost
- two wholly ‘new’ songs (it is absurd to talk of new as these were songs omitted from the movie but I think the description is pardonable!) – How Can Love Survive? and No Way To Stop It : the former is a duet between Max and the Baroness and the latter a trio between Max, the Baroness and the Captain. These are interesting for several reasons. In the first place, they are very much ‘classic musical’ songs – by which I mean there is a lot of clever word play and the performers feed off each other so that it is a kind of musical dialogue – they are not singalong tunes. In this sense one can see why they fit less easily into the movies’ musical scheme (which is not to say that there are not songs of this type in the movie – Sixteen Going on Seventeen is probably closest). But beyond this both are thematically ‘adult’. How Can Love Survive ( http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/thesoundofmusic/howcanlovesurvive.htm ) is very witty and sardonic commentary on the difficulties faced by rich lovers. No Way To Stop It ( http://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/soundofmusicthe/nowaytostopit.htm ) is even more interesting, as it is Max and the Baroness trying to persuade the Captain to go along with the Nazis: their method of doing this is by advancing the claims of total solipsism and self-interest. Their failure to do so segues directly into the Baroness leaving and the Captain and Maria plighting their troth. This has the effect of politicising the Baroness’s departure and the Captain’s/Maria’s love-affair. Again one can absolutely see why this was omitted from the movie.
- in fact following on from this the one major character change between stage and screen is the Baroness. On stage there is none of that awkward ball-throwing stuff, no references to packing the children off to boarding school. She is both a better (because less anti-children) and worse (because more pro-Nazi even if merely by urging the Captain to “Be wise, compromise” as she sings in No Way To Stop It) character. Hollywood depoliticised and personalised her character.
- a very small change but one I noticed was that when the Captain falters during the singing of Edelweiss it is one of the boys who steps forward to support him rather than Maria – this is dramatically more effective if a loss musically!
It will be seen that the cumulative effect of these changes, when it came to adapt The Sound of Music from stage to screen, was to drop the more ‘musical’ type numbers, to depoliticise and personalise, and to build up the role of Maria. This is not to say that the latter is still not utterly critical in the stage version and Fisher’s performance was excellent. Vocally she was a little throaty (not surprising at the end of a long run and she has had well-publicised problems with her vocal chords) and her voice has none of Andrew’s silver purity (a good thing to contrast as it avoids too direct a comparison), but she has a real stage presence and her energy and commitment carried the whole enterprise along. The most effective scene of all was The Concert Hall : this is a natural for the stage version with us, the real audience, becoming the story audience. Actually I think the producers missed a trick here – if would have been very natural for the audience to have been encouraged to sing along at the appropriate point and thus become even more engaged in the narrative. Even so the turning of the Nazi guards guns on the audience and the presence of armed guards in some of the boxes was very effective.
Above all The Sound of Music, whether in its stage or screen version, is a highly emotional narrative and whether one is a true fan or not will depend on whether or not one reacts to it emotionally: when all is said and done not even its most ardent defenders could claim it has great intellectual weight. Personally I do always respond emotionally and am left in tears. This is more so with the movie and I can name the specific places, which share a common device which induces teariness. This device is when a song is faltering and is then picked up by another character and resumes at greater force than before. The three times this occurs in the movie are…
- when the children first sing The Hills Are Alive to welcome the Baroness and the Captain joins in
- when the children are singing My Favourite Things in Maria’s absence and she returns (her voice being heard before she is seen)
- when the Captain falters in his singing of Edelweiss and Maria joins him (as noted above in the stage version Maria is replaced by one of the boys)
Why this trick should have this highly potent emotional effect on me I cannot, but no doubt there is a good psychological explanation. All these moments are present in their way in the stage version and, if not as forceful and compelling and emotive as in the film, were still well enough done to raise a tear. No stage version, however good – and this one was very good, is ever going to quite live up to the movie. That fact does not prevent it being an excellent evening’s entertainment. And one thing the stage version does have which the movie does not is of course a live audience, and there is always a special quality about being with a great many other people who are having a wonderful time – happiness and enjoyment can be infectious.