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Nuns And The Nazis And Whiskers On Kittens

By Peter Filichia

She was one of the most esteemed film critics of all time, but her enviable reputation didn’t stop her from getting fired.

Pauline Kael started writing for McCall’s in early 1965 and didn’t even last through all of 1966. She was canned for giving her honest opinions, and the first nail in her coffin was her pan of The Sound of Music.

The number of readers who wrote letters of complaint reached three figures and led to Kael’s losing her $20,000 a year salary. That may not sound lucrative, but it was good money for a mere twelve reviews a year.

While reading The Sound of Music Story, Tom Santopietro’s marvelous new book for St. Martin’s Press (full disclosure: that’s my publisher, too), I remembered Kael’s famous quip about the 1965 Oscar-winner:

“Wasn’t there perhaps one little von Trapp who didn’t want to sing his head off or screamed that he wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party guests, or got nervous and threw up if he had to get out on a stage?”

It’s a funny line – funny because it begs a truthful answer. And now we have one – a definite yes, in fact – thanks to Santopietro. He tells us that Rosmarie von Trapp — the eighth (yes, eighth) of ten (yes, ten) children — “had been the first to refuse touring after the death of her father in 1947.”

“I was not happy onstage at all. I was made to do it,” Santopietro quotes Rosmarie as saying before he adds “She was, by her own admission, very shy, suffered from stage fright and had a nervous breakdown. ‘I depended a lot on him,’” he writes, conveying her opinion of her father. “‘He was always in the background in the concerts. When he died, I just couldn’t handle being at home … one night I just ran out to try to find relief.’

“Three days later,” Santopietro admits, “she was spotted wandering across a farmer’s field, and when she was brought back home, Maria saw only two alternative treatments: life in a convent or a mental hospital. Rosmarie was given electric shock treatments.”

Well, that’s one scene we’ve never seen in The Sound of Music, unless bookwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote it out of the show during rehearsals or the tryouts in New Haven or Boston.

(But of course we know they didn’t.)

And how did the real Rosmarie take all this? “I got rebellious,” quotes Santopietro. “I smoked.”

Doesn’t that sound as wild and reckless as a von Trapp kid we know and love would get? We wouldn’t expect any one of the kids from Gretl to Liesl (or Johannes to Rupert, to be more accurate) to set fire to any whiskers on kittens or to engage kinky sex with a goatherd in order to make him feel less lonely.

With the fiftieth anniversary of its film version recently taking place,The Sound of Music was very much back in the news. Like Santopietro, Barry Monush prepared for the semi-centennial by writing a book, the equally marvelous The Sound of Music FAQfrom Applause.

It’s felicitously subtitled “All That’s Left to Know about Maria, the von Trapps and Our Favorite Things.” Indeed. Monush tells us when the movie debuted in each major city and at what theater. While I doubt that “What was the name, address and seating capacity of the theater that The Sound of Music opened in Calgary?” is a frequently asked question, Monush has done an amazing amount of homework to tell us that it was the 653-seat Odeon at 612 Eighth Avenue SW – and that it played there for seventy-two weeks.

There are plenty of pictures, too. Don’t miss the one of the Italian poster for Tutti Insieme Appassionatamente (literally All Together Passionately) which features Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe) and Charmian Carr (Liesl) kissing, with an expression on his face that expresses surprise he’s doing it, and a look on hers that says “What have you been waiting for?” Meanwhile, the heads of a very concerned-looking Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are there in the background. Santopietro offers thirty-four pictures in the middle of the book, spanning from the actual von Trapp family to Andrews and Plummer together forty years after the premiere.

Monush gives thirty-three solid pages to stage productions, starting with, of course, Mary Martin and the original Broadway cast in New Haven on Oct. 3, 1959. Martin was followed (after no fewer than two solid years, mind you) by Martha Wright, Jeannie Carson and Nancy Dussault. Did you know that future Oscar-winner Jon Voight played Rolf beginning in September, 1961 and Lauri Peters, the original Liesl, left the cast that October? And why do I link those two? Because Voight and Peters must have made amazing impressions on each other in those two short months for they wound up marrying in 1962 and stayed married until 1967 – not long before Voight hit it big. (Poor Lauri. Bet she was sorry.)

What’s more, Monush also gives time to the 1998 Broadway revival with Rebecca Luker and the 2013 Carrie Underwood The Sound of Music Live! He gives snippets from dozens of reviews of the 1965 film: the good (“Superb” – Variety), the bad (“The goo does get sticky” – The Oregonian) and the ugly (“A huge, tasteless blow-up” – The New Yorker).

Monush doesn’t give any reviews from the stage production (guess questions about those aren’t frequently asked), but Santopietro does. He too mentions the equally good (“The loveliest musical imaginable” – Aston, World Telegram & Sun), the bad (“Not only too sweet for words, but too sweet for music” – Kerr, Herald Tribune) and the ugly (“Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great leap backwards” – Kenneth Tynan, The Observer).

Both Santopietro and Monush deal with Sing a-Long Sound of Music, which started as a one-night event at a British gay and lesbian film festival but wound up playing all over England and the United States. For much of the audience, those subtitles offering each lyric were unnecessary. However, the crowd wasn’t always quiet during the non-musical sequences; attendees often Rocky Horror-ized the property by shouting out their own comments on what was happening.

My favorite shout-out quip came after Maria scolded Captain von Trapp for not being a better father. “You will pack your things and return to the Abbey,” he snarled – only to relent after he heard the kids sing “The Sound of Music.” So moved was he that he joined in the song, too. That led him to sheepishly turn to Maria and state “I want you to stay.”

And that’s when I yelled out “Ask for more money!”

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday and His upcoming bookThe Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order