How do you solve a problem like Maria?
The hills are alive with the sound of tradition. The Sound of Music (a rather enigmatic title by any standard) is not so much a lively musical as it is a piece of western culture. It comes by annually, near the turn of the year, to liven up the heart and vocal range of many a fan. It strikes, if you’ll pardon the pun, a chord.
Which music are we talking about, and what is its sound? Well, that of Julie Andrews, the future Mary Poppins! She starts out as naughty nun Maria, who simply won’t adhere to the strict rules of her convent. She’d rather twirl around on the hilltops of Austria, making up songs as she goes (though apparently, every native Austrian is born with those songs hardwired in their brain – at the merest convenience they all join in). To gently get rid of her, Mother Superior sends her off as a governess to seven incorrigible children and their frigid father: the Von Trapp family. She slowly wins their affections and brings liveliness and music to the icy household. But when love and the Nazi threat rear their heads, the family is endangered and they must all work together to survive. The answer to which lies, of course, in song and dance.
It is a joyous story. The Alpine vistas are gorgeous and the verses are known to all – from Do-Re-Mi and Edelweiss to So Long, Farewell and My Favorite Things. Though this is also a surprisingly long movie. At three hours, it tends to drag on a little. It might be akin to heresy to criticize something as beloved as The Sound of Music, yet a classic status is no ward against honest appraisal.
For one, there’s little depth to the songs. Music is often a great way to express emotions and step outside the framework of the narrative. It should always, though, have a sort of layered quality to it. It’s not enough to just sing about being happy, the song should also transcend that emotion by either furthering the plot, changing a dynamic or introducing a heretofore unseen element. See the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar for a great example of that. The Sound of Music’s songs seem content merely to hinge on being harmless amusements. Yes, they’re fun to hear and equally pleasant to sing along to, but they often lack something deeper and linger beyond their expiration date. After the umpteenth variation on Do-Re-Mi, you begin to appreciate why all the earlier governesses ran away screaming from the Von Trapps.
On top of that, it seems like every burp deserves its own ditty. It wouldn’t be so bad if the songs propelled the plot and characters, but they’re just statements of things we already knew. Maria has worldly ambitions. Liesl loves the boy who brings the telegrams. The children can sing. Yes, we got that. It got so bad that I was thrilled whenever a real piece of expository dialogue came up: finally! Something interesting happens again!
Luckily, there’s the Nazis. It’s the eve of WW2 and Austria is preparing for the Anschluss. Captain Von Trapp is a patriotic man and doesn’t like that idea at all. Faced with rising pressure to do his part for the new Aryan empire, the film’s final hour turns into an exhilarating bid to escape Austria. The whole thing comes together quite nicely here, reprising earlier songs in a new light. Edelweiss, once a nostalgic reverie, becomes a rousing call to arms for the Austrians. So Long, Farewell turns from bedtime song into a last hurrah. Here is the depth that the movie was aching for. Sometimes a payoff is a long time coming. But when it does arrive, it’s still good. The Sound of Music ends on a high note, and once you’re done, you’ll find those blasted songs are stuck in your head and you know, finally, how to solve a problem like Maria.