It’s not so often that a successful Broadway musical turns out to be better as a film than a stage play, but Robert Wise’s stellar skills, a first-rate cast and impeccable cinematography from Ted McCord combine to create the perfect artistic storm, producing a result that ever so rightly won six of the 1966 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography).
As good as the stage can be for creating intimacy and immediacy, it is well-nigh impossible to recreate the beauty, detail and panoramic views of Austria which provide most of the film’s sets and backgrounds.
Still, having said that, the real stars of this tale of duty, faith and love are the music and lyrics from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. So many, many musicals are one-hit wonders (“Memory” from Cats) or a couple of hum-on-the-way home tunes (most recently in these pages, “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” from Sweet Charity—cross-reference below), that the melodic wealth and savvy lyrics in this show’s songbook (from the title song—unforgettably “Do-Re-Mi”—to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” through to the ever-stirring “Climb Every Mountain”) could have carried a dozen other productions on their own.
As to the cast, Julie Andrews brought the pivotal role of Maria to such enchanting, thoughtful, glorious life, that it is hard to imagine anyone else learning to adapt to non-convent existence as the feisty, yet loving governess of the seven Trapp family children. With a supple soprano voice, exquisite diction and sense of movement that makes every song and dance flow with the—seemingly, deceptively—greatest of ease, the part belongs to Andrews.
Christopher Plummer as the military-loving (but not so much certain ideologies) widower was at his matinée idol best and also had the great presence of mind to understate his singing (famously, “Edelweiss”), providing a well-rounded performance that played to his strengths as an actor.
In the supporting roles, Richard Haydn had just the right mix of greedy opportunist and compassionate human being as Max Detweiler, while Peggy Wood’s Mother Abbess made up for any vocal deficiencies with a demeanour and delivery that sold every word or note. Eleanor Parker fuelled the Baroness role with just the right balance of regal entitlement and knowing when to depart gracefully. Charmian Carr was appropriately radiant as Liesl; Daniel Truhitte’s extra-blonde Rolfe had his best moment as Judas.
Here’s hoping the remake never happens; filmmaking reinforcing the music seldom gets better than this. JWR