Okay, so everyone is well-versed in the blockbuster film adaptation that we’ve all grown up with. Julie Andrews twirling on a hillside is one of the most visible images of the American musical in our popular culture. However, the popular success of the original 1959 stage version cannot be forgotten in the mix. Directed by Vincent Donehue, the show was a star vehicle for seemingly ageless Mary Martin, who at 46 would be playing the young postulant Maria (and would famously beat out Ethel Merman for the Tony award).
The show proved more significant as Oscar Hammerstein’s swan-song to musical, as he would succumb to stomach cancer less than a year into the show’s run (and whose health impacted the out of town creative experience). The Sound of Music opened on November 16, 1959 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in NY to mixed notices. Many critics took the show to task for being too saccharine and steeped in operetta rather than following in the innovative footsteps that had defined the early era of Rodgers & Hammerstein through the 1940s and early 50s.
However, the appeal of the show was undeniable. Audiences flocked to see the musical adaptation of the von Trapp Family Singers, keeping the show open in NY for 1,443 performance. The London production, which opened in 1961 without any stars, would go on to become the longest running musical in the West End. Florence Henderson went out on the national tour. However, whatever success the musical had onstage was instantly eclipsed by the unparalleled success of the 20th Century Fox film, which would become the highest grossing film of all time, and win the Oscar for Best Picture of 1965.
In composing a musical steeped in Roman Catholicism, Rodgers found himself researching liturgical music at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. My elementary school music teacher was a delightful nun who once told me in the seventh grade that she was one of those who sang for Rodgers. Of course that pushed her up a few stock points in my book. The chant settings he created are so impressive and authentic sounding, you’d have thought they were part of the original Gregorian hymnal. Ed Sullivan had the actresses playing the nuns appear on his 1959 Christmas special to sing a medley of their chorales, followed by a stirring rendition of the show’s first act-ending aria “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” by Patricia Neway. Take note of the critical analysis of the show by the reliably awkward Sullivan in his intro. Enjoy!