Okay, all together now –“The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years!”
Don’t pretend you don’t know it. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know the songs. And “The Sound of Music” is coming to town, returning to the Shubert Theater Nov. 11 through 16, where it premiered in 1959. It’s easy to mock, but “The Sound of Music” represents an important milestone in modern American cultural history. Yes it does. Really.
Even if you haven’t seen it or don’t like it, you can’t deny that “The Sound of Music,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein generally, has achieved a cultural saturation afforded to very few works in any genre. For something to become part of popular consciousness, it must have the value of allusion without explanation; that is, one can make reference to it in conversation or speech and expect the audience to know what is being referenced and why. Obviously, this concept has more specific possibilities, such as Physicists at the Heisenberg Institute wondering whether to have a coffee, or maps at Philosophy Faculties with arrows saying “Are You Here?” But to take an example for the present purpose, if I were to introduce myself by saying “the name’s Baldock, Nick Baldock” you would know what I was referencing and you’d get the point even if you thought I was weird.
“The Sound of Music,” on stage and screen, was a phenomenon. It won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and was the highest-grossing film ever until “The Godfather.” Critical reaction was, and remains, generally positive, but often grudging to say the least; Time Out magazine suggests that if you “get smashed first — you’ll soon be singing along with the inescapably memorable tunes.”
It’s a fine film, well-acted and directed, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. But as with any musical, it stands and falls by the songs (except in Korea, where they cut all the songs on first release in order to shorten the running time).
And to return to the point, which of the songs (excepting the drippy “Something Good”) hasn’t achieved Allusion Without Explanation: the “AWE” factor? “Edelweiss” is so imprinted in the popular imagination that it was once played at a White House reception under the impression it was the Austrian National Anthem. Who doesn’t know that “do” (a deer, a female deer) is followed by re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do? (don’t just take my word for it, that line was referenced in “The Simpsons”). And as I write “high on a hill stood a lonely goatherd,” why can I be certain that you will, without thinking, softly mutter “yay yodelay yodelay-he-hoo?”
It’s curious, then, that this isn’t really anywhere near Oscar Hammerstein’s best work. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is treading water to Rodgers’ monumental tune, and it seems patently clear that he wrote the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” in 10 minutes on the back of an envelope. “Raindrops on roses” — okay, fair enough. But “whiskers on kittens”? Why just the whiskers? “Cute little kittens” fits. And “bright copper kettles”? What is he on? Doorbells — who on earth gets off on doorbells? Are girls in white dresses required to have blue satin sashes? And is it dangerous to eat schnitzel without noodles?
Moreover, is there anybody whose first instinct, when bitten by a dog, is not to yelp with pain and lash out at the mutt, but instead to think of wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings? It’s insane. This song so annoys me that I was going to improve it by writing my own version, but it’s so difficult to find rhymes for “nibbling earlobes” or “seriously good hashish.”
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter what I say, because “The Sound of Music” is beyond criticism. It’s so uncool that it’s gone right round the other side and become fashionable again; in London, “Sing-a-long-a-Sound-of-Music” is one of the trendiest shows for a certain type of person, one who likes to dress up as a nun and wave plastic edelweiss. Not me — I’m not prepared to be so camp in public. But I know all the words anyway, and I can sit at home and sing to myself without being bothered by men in yellow lycra who have dressed up as “Ray, a drop of golden sun.”
At least, not very often.
Nick Baldock is a first year graduate student in the History Department.