As a media studies professor, I am aware that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—whether performed onstage, onscreen, or whatever last night’s “live-televised” event was—is, for some, highly problematic.
Capt’n (von Trapp), We’ve a Problem
For example, regarding gender roles, the feisty, independent postulate/nanny marries the stern, mopey Captain von Trapp, ultimately becoming a wife and mother to reinstall the father as the rightful, patriarchal head of the family.
As well, regarding nationality, The Sound of Music, some have argued, “carries the strongest representation of Austria to the world.” So if these (predominately) fictionalized images are what much of the Western world understands about Austria and its history, then yeah, there’s a problem.
There are also class issues in The Sound of Music. Not only is the Von Trapps’ Austria almost completely aristocratic, but when class difference is present, it’s wrapped up in images of nationalism. As Anne McLeer points out, Maria’s move from peasant/servant to wife/mother represents “a symbolic erasure of class difference (conflict) in the interest of constructing a concept of nationalism.” For McLeer, patriotism develops in the narrative because of “a lack of conflict between social group, the correct positioning of traditional femininity and masculinity in the nuclear family, and the positing of the normative patriarchal family as the frontline against foreign aggression” (94).
Finally, of course, there’s all that Nazi business that runs throughout. Eek.
Self-Discovery via The Sound of Music
On the other hand, some queer theorists have placed The Sound of Music, the 1965 film adaptation especially, in a more positive light. For instance, in A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, Stacy Ellen Wolf finds that lesbian viewers “connect their attachment to the film with self-conceptions of developing lesbian sexuality” (215). “I should’ve known I was a lesbian,” some report, “because I was in love with Julie Andrews.”
Other lifelong fans, Wolf reports, were more specific in their identification with and desire for Andrews’s Maria. Here’s one of the most memorable:
She played the guitar, and I played the guitar. And in some ways I identified with her but she was too femme for me, and in some ways I wanted to be the Captain and sweep her off her feet. She was totally freaked out by her feelings and didn’t know it. There was a part of me that was freaked out by any sexual feelings at all. The convent was a safe place to go with those feelings. That must have stuck in my brain because that’s what happened to me too. (217)
Now That the Lit Review’s Outta The Way… My Turn
Despite its potentially troubling representations of gender, race, class, nationality, and Nazis, I unabashedly love The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). I always have. Not only can I sing every song in the film, but also I know by heart virtually every line of the script. Yes, this is annoying to those watching with me; just ask my younger brother’s 7-year-old self. (I may be misremembering this, but I’m pretty sure the brother was forced to smooth out “my train” when I pretended to be Maria in her wedding dress.)
Indeed, like a good chunk of my Twitter feed apparently, I grew up watching Julie Andrews spin, Christopher Plummer brood, those seven young actors try to feign Austrian (British? vaguely European?) accents, Peggy Wood fake-sing “Climb Every Mountain,” and Eleanor Parker scheme. And this, my friends, happened multiple times throughout the year. Nah, we didn’t wait for the annual network telecast of The Sound of Music. We watched all three hours, all the time. On an old VCR tape. See also: Annie, Grease, and Popeye.
Consequently, before it aired, I knew last night’s live telecast of The Sound of Music (with Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer) would be a problem for me (and others).
First, the film’s iconic images are WAY too ingrained in my head for me to make room for new (bad) ones—and this is coming from someone who wrote her dissertation on film adaptation.
Second, while Underwood can sing, she is not an actress (bless her heart, she tried). Moreover, she doesn’t “look the part” as they say.
Third, the TV/theater hybrid, as always, is bizarre. It was odd in the BBC Television Shakespeare series I watched as an M.A. and Ph.D. student. It’s odd in PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre productions. And it’s (mostly) odd with cinemacasts like National Theatre Live’s; at least with these the darkened theatre and huge movie screen keep one immersed in the story. But these three TV/theatre productions are created for very specific audiences, I submit. For network television audiences who binge on Two and Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, CSI: Miami, and NCIS, such a suspension of disbelief simply won’t work.
And for these reasons and more, last night’s The Sound of Music Live did not succeed for me and others. What the show did produce, however, is a barrage of tweets. So for good or bad, here are mine (18 total).