It’s one of those songs, like Yellow Submarine or I Should Be
So Lucky, that many of us feel we were born knowing and, in
consequence, maybe we don’t really listen as closely as we should. But when you do listen, oh my, what a song.
The first time I saw The Sound of Music at Wimbledon Theatre in 2011, I sat amongst an audience of seasoned regulars and young newbies, the more youthful attracted by the How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria television show and the oldies having grown up with Christmas Day screenings of the movie that won five Oscars. The entertainment was first rate – songs such as My Favourite Things and The Lonely Goatherd marrying the deceptively easy listening music of Richard Rodgers to the lyrical pyrotechnics of Oscar Hammerstein II.
But the highlight was Lesley Garrett’s first-act closer, for which she stepped to the front of the stage and sent a shiver down 2,000 spines with Climb Ev’ry Mountain. As the curtain fell, everyone around me breathed out and some were in tears – I wasn’t far off myself.
The two men of Jewish heritage writing for a Mother Abbess were liberals at a time when that stance took some nerve in post-war, cold war USA. Just listen to Mandy Patinkin here with You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, a song the writers insisted on including in the touring production of South Pacific (1949) against the fierce disapproval of politicians in America’s Deep South. Rodgers and Hammerstein may have been box office, but they were men of principle and courage too.
Here is Oscar Hammerstein on Paul Robeson from a 1958 interview: 'I don't accuse him of being a Communist. I don't know whether he is or not, but many people think he is and let's assume that he is. It troubles me to sit as a judge upon Paul, because I think of myself and try to wonder how I would feel if I were the son of a minister, a Phi Beta Kappa student at Rutgers, an All-American tackle, a tall handsome man, a singer, an actor, an athlete and could not live in the same hotel with the other members of my theatrical troupe – I would be good and sore and I don't know what I might do.' This wasn't long after Robeson recorded this extraordinary and magnificent anthem.
Knowing more about the writers, the second time I saw The Sound of Music (also in Wimbledon), I was much more attuned to the weight of the songs, no longer merely kitsch and catchy but loaded with political, social and personal meaning. So when Rebecca Caine stepped forward to close the first half, I was ready.
Naturally for a Broadway show, there’s the simplicity of the lyric, no word longer than three syllables, the context bracingly physical, in contrast to the atmosphere of the monastery, the verbs full of endeavour: climb; search; follow; ford; find; give. The command of language required to ‘write simple’ is much underrated in all artistic work and a key to the success of blockbusters such as this show.
The music supplements the lyric perfectly, starting at not much more than an intimate whisper as the Mother Abbess recognises Maria’s spirit and destiny and sets her free – but soon soaring as high as, er, a mountain, as she grants her novice not just licence, but encouragement, to meet the challenges of the extremely dangerous world she is joining. There’s plenty of sex in it too, as we know Maria’s vows will not be to chastity, but to her Captain.
Even if the rest of the show's plot, with its cold-hearted caricature patriarch Captain von Trapp and the wartime trek from the Nazis in Anschluss Austria over those mountains to safe Switzerland, has little in common with Maria von Trapp's actual life – as told in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (1949) – the transition from trainee nun to wife and stepmother did actually happen and can't have been easy.
And then it struck me – this is also a song of regret. The reason the Mother Abbess has defended Maria so strongly is that she can see her young self in the scatty, talented, beautiful nun. Did she have an affair with the Captain at the same age? Is she sending Maria out to live the life she rejected? Does she have regrets? Is she reflecting on her own missed opportunities?
There are, of course, thousands of performances of this song, but I’ve always enjoyed this one here and above by Marni Nixon. I like to think that somewhere below the celebration of a young woman’s intellectual, spiritual and sexual empowerment, there’s just a hint of poignant ‘what might have been’ too.
Gary Naylor writes about cricket at the Guardian and about theatre at Broadwayworld. He tweets at @garynaylor999