“The Sound of Music Story”
Exclusive Interview with author Tom Santopietro
Would it sound too corny if I said that The Sound of Music was one of ‘my favorite things‘??? Hopefully, not! But, if I must justify that statement, I will say that, ever since I was a very little kid, I have just loved this movie! And to this day, not only does the film bring back very fond memories, but it ALWAYS brings a smile to my face and makes me feel so ‘gosh darn’ good. And the music — well the music, is just pure heaven!
That said, I am thrilled to say that a new book about the film, The Sound of Music Story is being released on Tuesday, February 17 — AND I am even happier to say that author Tom Santopietro has honored CMH with an exclusive interview about it!
Before we start the interview, I just want to say that The Sound of Music Story is a thoroughly enjoyable read — from cover to cover! Chronicling the real-life story of Maria von Trapp, and the evolution of the Broadway play and beloved film, it’s a treasure trove of fun facts, behind-the-scenes stories and contextual insight. There’s lots of information in this book, so rather than give you a play-by-play here, I’ve included tidbits of content info in my interview questions below. So, please read on…
A big Thank You to Tom Santopietro for taking the time to do this interview — and to St. Martin’s Press for supplying CMH with some wonderful behind-the-scenes photos to use in this blog post plus TWELVE copies of The Sound of Music Story to give away during the next six weeks! Contest details will follow on Monday.
“The Sound of Music Story: How a Beguiling Young Novice, a Handsome Austrian Captain and Ten Singing von Trapp Children Inspired the Most Beloved Film of All Time”
CMH: You’ve spent much of your career managing Broadway shows, and have also authored a number of classic movie related books. Can you tell us what the “The Sound of Music” means to you, and why you felt compelled to write this book?
Tom Santopietro: The Sound of Music was the first Broadway show I ever saw; I was very young and all I remember is thinking that it was pretty great that Rolf got to ride his bike onstage when he was delivering a telegram- very impressive to a five year old boy! When the movie came out I fell for it completely- and fell a little in love with Julie Andrews (as did most of the world). The scenery, the story, especially the music- I fell for it all.
Why I felt compelled to write about the film: so much cultural heft has been attached to the film that I wanted to strip that away and look at it from the standpoint of a film historian, hopefully reminding people of why it has endured- it is a great movie musical. At the same time I wanted to really examine why people love the film so much. My previous book was about The Godfather trilogy- worlds apart from The Sound of Music but here’s what drew me to both: both films are about family and the healing power of family- and that’s a universal emotion.
CMH: I imagine it would be thrilling, and at the same time, daunting, to write about such an iconic and beloved film. Can you share with us how you approached compiling and organizing the research for the book, and what interviews you were able to secure?
Tom Santopietro: In terms of research, with all my books I take the same approach: I read everything I can find on the topic before I write a word. With The Sound of Music I read previous books about the musical, books on Rodgers and Hammerstein, books on Robert Wise, books about costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, online interviews, press clippings- you name it. One of the great things about New York City is the amazing Library of Performing Arts which has fantastic resources. In the internet age, with so much available, the hard part is narrowing the scope. I had a great time immersing myself in that world.
As for people I interviewed: Julie Andrews was not available for an interview- her manager said she is “saving all of her stories for part 2 of her autobiography!” I couldn’t argue with that. But- I had a number of great interviews with key personnel — all of whom were very generous with their time and a pleasure to speak with: Dan Truhitte (Rolf), Marni Nixon (Sister Sophia), choreographer Dee Dee Wood, film historian Jeanine Basinger, Wise’s assistant director Georg Steinitz, and I also had a terrific interview with Johannes von Trapp, Maria’s youngest child.
CMH: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. The book nicely chronicles Maria’s life, explaining what led her to seek life at the Abbey, what happened upon her arrival at the Captain’s villa, how the Trapp Family singers originated — and beyond. And, yes, we also learn that the real-life Maria ”actually did whistle and sing within the Abbey walls.” Can you share with us another similarity or difference between the ‘real-life’ Maria and the ‘on-screen’ Maria played by Julie Andrews?
Tom Santopietro: The real Maria von Trapp had an emotionally deprived childhood- she has written of the fact that when one of the young von Trapp girls kissed her, it was the first conscious kiss of her life, and she was 20 years old. She overcame a great many difficulties in her life and her drive was extraordinary.
Maria was also a very robust woman- far more so than Julie Andrews who is tall and trim. Maria was fond of both Julie Andrews and Mary Martin, who originated the role on Broadway, but said that they were “more like Bryn Mawr girls — I was a wild creature!”
There are, of course, many differences between the real story and the film: the von Trapps escaped by train to Italy, not over the alps into Switzerland, they actually defied Hitler three times, not just once as shown in the movie, there were ten von Trapp children; these changes happen in movies because drama compresses events- has to. But the essence of the movie- the family love, the time in the abbey, the marriage to the captain, the love of singing, the flight to freedom- all true.
December 1959: Mary Martin, Broadway’s Maria von Trapp, flanked by The Sound of Music’s creative team. Left to right: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse.
CMH: The book explains how Maria’s story was transformed into the Broadway play starring Mary Martin, how Rodgers and Hammerstein came on board, and how the play was received by theater-goers and the press. Audiences cheered and, although critics panned it, the play swept the Tony Awards and “Hollywood came calling very quickly”. However, the book tells us that by 1963, the film seemed “headed for oblivion.” Can you elaborate on this a little for us?
Tom Santopietro: When The Sound of Music was such a big hit on Broadway, the film rights were sold for over $1 million dollars — a huge sum at the time. But- 20th Century Fox was losing millions of dollars on the Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton film Cleopatra and there was no money or interest in a multi-million dollar musical. So- the property sat in a desk drawer for three years; at one point the studio actually shut down because there was no money.
Wardrobe test shot with cast. Front row, L to R: Kym Karath, Debbie Turner, Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Charmian Carr; back row: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer
CMH: Lucky for us, Richard Zanuck “knew a good story when he read it” — and the book goes on to chronicle how the creative team for the film was built. We learn about which directors were approached before Robert Wise signed on, which actors were considered and ultimately cast, and which experts were picked to join the behind-the-scenes team. We learn that the “powers-that-be wanted a real movie star with box office clout”. We learn that Christopher Plummer wasn’t exactly thrilled about the role. And we learn lots more about the casting process, from the primary and secondary roles, to the nuns, the children and more. Can you share with us just a few names of the many actors and actresses considered for roles (big or small), that ultimately didn’t get the parts?
Tom Santopietro: For the role of Maria, Grace Kelly was considered, as was Doris Day. Doris was the number one star in the world at the time and she could sing and act, but she smartly said: “I’m too American for anyone to believe me as a nun in Austria!” Mary Poppins had not yet been released but when Robert Wise saw footage of the film he said: “Let’s go sign Julie Andrews right now!”
For the role of the Captain, Sean Connery and Bing Crosby (!) were mentioned, as were Yul Brynner and Rex Harrison. Christopher Plummer was known on stage but not in films; it was Robert Wise who thought of Plummer and thought he’d be great in the role, bringing a bit of edge so that the film did not become too sweet.
Minor roles: I was really interested to learn that Jeannette MacDonald had been considered for the role of the Mother Superior and that Noel Coward and Victor Borge were considered for the role of Max — I think Noel Coward would have been great, but Richard Haydn was terrific in the role.
CMH: The book takes us through the filming process of the key scenes and songs from the movie, both on location in Austria and on-set in Hollywood. We hear about the bad weather delays (rain, rain, rain), some mishaps and accidents, and even the giggling fits. We learn about the lighting, the staging, the last-minute tweaks… the long days, the fatigue, the teamwork — and the professionalism and warmth of Julie Andrews. Can you share one quick anecdote with us about the filming of one of these iconic scenes or songs?
Tom Santopietro: I was struck by the fact that the first scene Julie Andrews had with the children was “My Favorite Things.” It was during the first week of filming and Julie did not know the youngsters. But — the bond formed instantly. She would make them laugh, comfort them, make them feel part of the team — they really all fell in love with her, so that emotion you see on screen was real. When they filmed “My Favorite Things” the screenwriter Ernest Lehman felt it looked overly rehearsed and choreographed, so the choreographers Dee Dee Wood and Marc Breaux simplified the number to make it look more spontaneous- it’s a great number that really moves the story along- you see the children responding to Maria (as they did to Julie) and, when the captain sternly interrupts the singing, you see where the dramatic conflict will be. It’s great story telling.
World Premiere, March 2, 1965. Composer Richard Rodgers first worked with Julie Andrews on the 1957 television production of Cinderella.
CMH: The book describes the marketing strategy and PR rollout for the film’s release, including the public screenings which garnered astonishingly good results. The film premiered in New York City on March 2, 1965 — and, as with the Broadway play, audiences cheered and critics panned. What was it about the film that so delighted audiences, yet so angered critics?
Tom Santopietro: I was fascinated in the dichotomy with the reviews. The industry publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter loved it, as did small town newspapers. But- big city critics like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker and Judith Crist hated it, with over the top criticism. Kael called the film a “big sugar coated lie.” I think they were so anxious to establish their hip bona fides- remember this was just when the counter culture was starting- that they went way overboard in the criticism. As for the criticism that it was all a lie — yes, the seven children were impeccably behaved with Maria and that could never happen in real life- adolescents are tough! And yes, they took a train to Italy to escape, not climbing over the mountain to the strains of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” But- the basic events really did occur: Maria was a nun, married a naval captain hero, became an instant step-mother, molded the family into a top flight singing group, outwitted the Nazis and came to America penniless to establish a new life. No lie there.
I also think that it was at this time that people came to really distrust anything they felt smacked of sentiment- and The Sound of Music was filled with sentiment. It was the sheer effectiveness of the film- none of its imitators like Doctor Doolittle and Song of Norway were anywhere near as effective- that seemed to most infuriate those critics.
Reunited in 2005 for the 40th Anniversary. Shown from left, back row: Charmian Carr, Nicholas Hammond, Heather Menzies, Duane Chase; front row: Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, Kym Karath
CMH: Of course, the film went on to win five Academy Awards, set box office records worldwide, and has become one of the most beloved films of all time. The book shares ‘fifty years of statistics’ with us, and discusses the ‘sing-along phenomenon’ and new iterations of the story. We also learn about the post-film lives of both the cast members and the actual von Trapps. Can you share a tidbit with us about one of the on-screen von Trapp children’s post-movie lives?
Tom Santopietro: I thought it was fascinating to learn that Charmian Carr (Liesl) went on to a very successful career as an interior decorator, and she decorated Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch because he was such a Sound of Music fan!
CMH: You clearly have great knowledge and love for this film. Was there anything that you learned while researching the book that truly surprised you?
Tom Santopietro: I think I was most surprised to learn that far from being the stern taskmaster depicted onscreen, Captain von Trapp was a warm loving man with a great love of music. The children played many instruments and he was never emotionally unavailable the way he was in the film. This is the distortion that most bothered the real von Trapp children. It was all done for the sake of drama.
Maria von Trapp visits the set, films a cameo, and then announces her retirement from screen acting, all in one day.
CMH: Many of us hold a special place in our hearts for The Sound of Music. If you had to sum up the legacy of The Sound of Music in just a few sentences, what would they be?
Tom Santopietro: I think that The Sound of Music appeals around the world- it is popular everywhere- because it is about the importance of family love and forgiveness. Those are universal emotions. People recognize that no family is as impossibly good as the von Trapps are onscreen, but they know that the von Trapps were a real life, complicated, but always loving family, and most important of all, the film gives people hope. No matter how old we are, we still want that happy ending. The ability to give hope is very powerful, and that’s the end result of a beautifully made film.
CMH: Okay — now, brace yourself for the toughest question of all! If you had to choose, what is your favorite song from the film? And why?
Tom Santopietro: I’d say my favorite is “Do-Re-Mi”; the stars are not just Julie Andrews and the children, but the city of Salzburg as well. All those snippets filmed in ten second increments add up to something pretty spectacular. The first part of the song is on the mountaintop and then after the first part of the song Julie Andrews says “Now children” and instantly they are in a new location with new clothes on — the song has compressed time and space in just two words- a whole summer has passed. It is a great number, a terrific hummable song, and very smartly shot and staged. By the way- it was Julie Andrews’s idea to leap a complete octave on the final note!
Thanks again to Tom Santopietro and St. Martin’s Press for this fascinating book and interview, and for twelve books to giveaway over the next six weeks. For those of you who can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase it here:
You can follow “The Sound of Music Story on Twitter at: @TSOMStory
All photos courtesy of Photofest.
About Tom Santopietro: Tom Santopietro is the author of The Godfather Effect, [ The Importance of Being Barbra, Considering Doris Day (a New York Times Editor’s Choice) and Sinatra in Hollywood. He has worked for the past twenty years in New York theater as a manager of more than two dozen Broadway shows.
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub