BY LAURA BERGELLS
PHOTOS RICHARD APP
You’ve seen the Sound of Music a zillion times on TV. You know the story. You love the music, the characters, and the scenery. And the play was a sensation at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre in 2007.
And now – it’s back. The Sound of Music will be playing yet again at the Civic from November 15-December 15, 2013. Book your tickets now — the Civic’s Community Relations Director Nancy Brozek told me that the show is selling out fast.
Indeed, I had to bust my way past a short line at the box office to get into the theatre’s green room on October 30 to attend the Civic’s Inside Dish event. Almost 50 years after its 1965 Academy Award win for Best Picture, the Sound of Music still seems wildly popular in Grand Rapids.
But why? What is it about this play that makes it so enduringly popular and socially relevant?
As I see it, the story centers on an artistic free spirit who saves a stuffy military widower and his seven weirdly obedient children from getting swept up in the popular social and political conventions of pre-World War II Austria. Without Maria’s intervention, the Von Trapp family was on a path to heiling Hitler until hell freezes over. Feminists will love that the hero of this story is a young woman who infiltrates a family and saves them from their overly disciplined extremism with her creative, compassionate, and loving leadership.
The director of the Civic’s upcoming production shares a different vision for the play.
“The message to take away from the show is that I hope people would value family, courage and sticking together,” said Penelope Notter, director of The Sound of Music, “This is a brave family, who would not tolerate evil and instead risked their lives to get away. It’s a pretty compelling story. And it is true.”
You can interpret this crowd-pleasing play any number of ways. The Sound of Music is a romantic love story with adorable children like Puff the Magic Dragon is a song about a cute sea-dwelling creature. You can thoroughly enjoy a family-friendly, adventurous, and musical surface. You can delight in exploring a countercultural subtext that ignores strict historical accuracy in favor of promoting liberal feminist themes.
You can even do both.
The Sound of Music is as relevant as ever in these turbulent times. Two blocks from the Civic, I walked past two young men dressed as skinheads. Dressed in black and wearing jack boots, they were talking to each other with bitter frowns on their angry faces.
As I passed, one of the young men suddenly smiled warmly and said “hello” to me. I nodded curtly and kept moving.
Maybe the Michigan Militia was out recruiting for Devil’s Night. Or maybe two clueless young men were posing for a Halloween lark. Most of the successful extremists in our midst have learned to be more covert, but these two were as big and bold as life.
I find it alarming when even faux-Nazis are courteous to me. As a child, the Illinois Nazis were almost always present in our south Chicago neighborhoods in the mid to late 1960’s. They seemed angry and hostile, until I walked by and they were all sweetness and smiles: gentlemanly, polite, and charming.
Same deal here in Michigan: early on, I met a local lady who seemed very nice and knowledgeable about the area. She invited me into her rural home. After enjoying coffee and cookies, she felt I was the kind of person who might want to see her private room that served as a shrine to Hitler.
I am not a person who appreciates swastika shrines, Illinois Nazis, or the Michigan Militia. After all, the Nazis set fire to the lawn of my convent in 1968, so my parents would not let me attend school there, as planned.
Maybe I identify a little too closely with the Maria von Trapp character. But when it’s the late 1960’s, you’re a little girl, and Nazis set fire to the lawn of your convent — you see Maria as the hero of the story.
At the Inside Dish, I was excited to learn that director Penelope Notter made subtle yet dramatic changes to the play. After all, it’s not the 1960’s anymore. The 21st century extremists among us have learned subtler and more effective approaches to spreading hate-filled ideology. You may be sitting next to one right now, and not even know it.
“I have definitely up-played the Nazis,” said Notter. “They’ll be in the audience with you. The tension and fear of that time, I don’t want that to be missed. Because I realized years ago that 80% of the audience, that World War II is little — a couple of pages in their history book that they studied.”
According to Notter, the exceptional young cast of the play has a solid understanding of the period’s history. They watched old newsreels of the invasion of Austria. They’ve done their homework and researched the family.
The Civic, after all, isn’t merely a theatre. It’s a School of Theatre Arts that aims to educate not only its cast and volunteers, but also the community it serves. Over a hundred people — cast, orchestra, backstage staff and community volunteers — will be working every night to bring the Sound of Music to Grand Rapids.
“When we go to the concert in the show, YOU become the audience for the concert,” said Notter. “And I shouldn’t tell you all the surprises, but the Nazi flags will drop. They will march down the aisles. They will stand and watch you, to make sure you don’t do anything wrong. There’s two snipers in the bays. They will watch you, OK? Yeah. They’re there.”
Yes. Yes, they certainly are…
That’s the Sound of Music for you: bright and shiny; yet dark and disturbing. Get your tickets now, while they’re still available.