The real Maria

Maria Kutschera was no Julie Andrews. The Von Trapps' tutor had a violent temper, and after her fairytale marriage to her charges' father, she confessed that she loved the children, not the Captain. Mark Bostridge unearths the real story behind 'The Sound of Music'

Ernest Lehman, the distinguished screen writer of such films as Sweet Smell of Success and North by Northwest, who died last year, was fond of telling the story of one particular incident relating to the time he spent working on the 1965 screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.

Although he had written successful film adaptations of The King and I and West Side Story, Lehman had struggled to get this third musical onto the big screen. Everyone in Hollywood, including his agent, had tried to talk him out of having anything to do with it. The original stage version of The Sound of Music on Broadway in 1959 had received a decidedly mixed critical reception - the New York Herald Tribune had described the show as "Not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music"- but Lehman had remained adamant that one day, despite the doomsayers, The Sound of Music would make a successful film. Finally, 20th Century Fox, still reeling from the financial disaster of Cleopatra, decided to go ahead with it. Lunching one day during the production in the studio commissary, Lehman was approached by an old friend, the actor Burt Lancaster, who asked him what he was working on. "Jesus, you must need the money!" was Lancaster's response when he heard what it was.

Ernest Lehman had the last laugh. The film of The Sound of Music, directed by Robert Wise, and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, taking just over $158m at the US box office alone (it also, in spite of mixed reviews, won the Oscar for Best Picture). When adjusted for ticket-price inflation, this is the equivalent of $911m at 2006 prices, giving the film third place in the list of all-time box office hits. Lehman, who pocketed 2.5 per cent of the profits, need never have worked again.

But The Sound of Music has always been critic-proof, as the fate of Pauline Kael (later famously of The New Yorker) reminds us. Kael, who reviewed the film on its first release for McCall's Magazine, reviled it for its "luxuriant falseness", asked in mocking tones whether there wasn't possibly one little Von Trapp "who didn't want to sing his head off ... or act out little glockenspiel routines"; she dubbed the production, accurately as it turned out, The Sound of Money. After protests from readers, she was unceremoniously fired the following week.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian must be hoping that The Sound of Music's track record as a cash cow is set to continue. For, with Jeremy Sams as director, they are this week beginning previews of the first production of the stage musical in the West End in a quarter of a century. It's difficult to believe that they have much to worry about; indeed, by the beginning of this month, the show had already taken £10m in advance ticket sales. The last London revival, in 1981, broke box-office records, even though it starred a rather mature, 51-year-old Petula Clark in the role of the twentysomething postulant Maria. Despite this handicap, Clark was acclaimed by the real Maria von Trapp - who relished taking bows with the rest of the cast when she was in the audience - as the best Maria she'd seen. This new production confined the casting of the central role to the contestants of BBC1's talent show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?. In the end, the best candidate, Connie Fisher, suitably clean-scrubbed and perky in the Julie Andrews tradition, won the part.

How can one account for the continuing appeal of The Sound of Music? Much of the pleasure is associated with memories of the film, and for many of us those memories are bound up with childhood, before we had the chance to grow a little cynical. As a child in the mid-Sixties, I remember seaside holidays at Bournemouth over several consecutive summers when, inevitably, The Sound of Music was always the main feature playing at the local cinema. This comes nowhere near matching the obsessional devotion of fans such as the Cardiff woman who saw the film 307 times in its first nine months of release - twice a day, and once on Sundays - and was awarded a free pass on her 57th visit. When asked why she did so, she replied, "Because it makes me feel happy." (This chimes in with reports that in the event of a nuclear strike on Britain, the BBC will broadcast the film to raise the spirits of survivors.) The songs obviously represent a huge part of the affection felt for The Sound of Music. They have become part of a universal musical language. The recent, phenomenal success of Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music, where the audience joins in the songs, and comes to the cinema dressed as nuns, Nazis, or brown paper packages tied up with string, testifies to this enduring popularity.

Many of those seeing the film or the stage show may not appreciate how far back its lineage stretches. Before Broadway and Hollywood got to grips with the story, there were two German films inspired by it. Die Trapp-Familie (1956), the original, was one of the most successful films ever made in Germany (a country where, later, distributors felt forced to cut the Nazi scenes from The Sound of Music, so that the film ended with the marriage of Maria and the Captain). Georg Hurdalek's script was an important influence on the stage and film musical, while Wolfgang Liebeneiner's direction clearly left its mark on Robert Wise. This film and its sequel, dealing with the Trapp family's experiences in exile in the US, were in their turn based on the autobiography of Maria von Trapp herself. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, published in 1949, became a bestseller. (Maria unwittingly sold the rights to a German production company for $9,000, and therefore had no share in the profits of The Sound of Music's runaway success until the film-makers eventually took pity on her, and awarded her three-eighths of one per cent.)

The Sound of Music takes elements from a true story but, as one would expect in a musical, omits the darker shadows that crossed the lives of the real Von Trapp family. Maria Augusta Kutschera, born in 1925, a postulant from Nonnberg Abbey, arrived at the Von Trapp family home in Salzburg, in 1926, not as a governess for the entire family of seven children, but as a tutor for the youngest child, known as Mitzi, who was recovering from the scarlet fever that had killed her mother Agathe soon after her birth. Maria was the reverse of the Girl Guide character played first by Mary Martin on stage, and subsequently by Julie Andrews. Her childhood had been severely dysfunctional. Her mother had died before she was three and, abandoned by her father, she had been brought up by an elderly uncle who beat her. Maria was a force of nature, once described by her youngest child Johannes as always doing everything "not just to 100 per cent, but to 110 per cent" (Maria had three children of her own after her marriage in 1927 to Georg von Trapp).

She also had a volatile temperament, would become violently enraged, and start yelling, slamming doors, and throwing things. However, she was very musical, having been first attracted to the church by its music, and did encourage the children to sing together. When she heard their voices, the opera singer Lotte Lehmann is said to have exclaimed, "You have gold in your throats." Singing a classical and folk repertoire, and under the guidance of their musical director Father Franz Wasner, they formed the Trapp Family Singers, and their fame spread on European tours, where they performed before the Pope, and eventually, in America, after their flight from Austria in 1938. They left Austria, not, as in the film, by climbing over the mountains (which would have brought them, slap down in the middle of Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden), but by taking the train to Italy, and from there travelling to London where they boarded the boat for the US. (Their home in Salzburg was taken over by Heinrich Himmler as his Austrian headquarters.)

The Captain, Baron Georg von Trapp, was similarly the complete opposite of his fictional counterpart. Far from being a stern patriarch, he was a quiet, gentle man whose life had been marked by tragedy. A naval hero, decorated for his submarine command in the First World War, he had lost part of his purpose in life when defeated Austria was forced to surrender its coastline and navy after the war. At 38, he lost his wife, from whom he inherited a fortune, as Agathe's grandfather had been Robert Whitehead, the inventor of the torpedo. Then, five years after his marriage to Maria - "I didn't love him, I loved the children", she once confessed - he lost that fortune overnight when the bank failed.

Maria, energetic and resourceful, put the family finances back on track. But after Georg's death in 1947, her hold on the family's unity and professional name began to fail. Her eldest daughter Rosemarie, who found the isolation of the family home in the hills of Vermont suffocating, and experienced constant stage fright, suffered a breakdown at the age of 18, disappeared for three days, and was later treated with electro-shock therapy. In 1948, Johanna, at 29, became the first to marry and leave the group despite her step-mother's extreme disapproval (Maria locked Johanna in her room from which she managed to escape, and elope). Finally, in 1956, the Trapp Family Singers disbanded. Maria put her energies instead into the development of a ski lodge at Vermont, which today still welcomes thousands of visitors a year. She died in 1987.

None of this discontent, naturally enough, surfaces in The Sound of Music. But a central problem facing director Jeremy Sams in the new production is precisely how to counter the reputation for cloying saccharine that has always attached itself to the stage show. Ernest Lehman reduced this immeasurably in the film by redrawing the character of the Captain, allowing him to provide a wry and slightly acerbic contrast to Maria's sweetness; while the magnificent backdrop of the Austrian scenery, stunningly photographed, somehow offset and diverted the sentiment of the original. Sams pays tribute to the Rodgers and Hammerstein's "brilliant construction", and discloses that two of the songs written specially for the film, "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good", have been incorporated into the show (while two songs cut from the movie, "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way To Stop It", have been retained). He adds that modern technology permits "an epic staging which will take the audience's breath away".

But he can't help sounding as though he's taking happy pills when he admits that he's completely moved by the beauty and honesty of the piece. "Fundamentally," he says, "it's about how music can serve to make whole things that are broken."

* 'The Sound of Music' previews from Friday at the London Palladium and opens from 15 Nov: www.soundofmusiclondon.com, 0870 890 1108

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