BROADWAY STAGE TO HOLLYWOOD SOUND STAGE
Five months after The Sound of Music opened, it took home six trophies at the 1960 Tony Awards, including Best Musical (which it shared with Fiorello!). A few week later, the show received another prize—a $1,250,000 check for the film rights, signed by 20th Century Fox.
Had the Broadway production, which eventually cost $480,000, not already recouped most of that at the box office, the sale of the movie rights would have instantly put the show in the black. Rodgers & Hammerstein, in their dual capacities as co-creators and producers, made almost $700,000 between them from the movie sale. Among other perks negotiated by the fabled Irving “Swifty” Lazar, agent for Rodgers & Hammerstein as well as the book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the creative team behind The Sound of Music, was a 10 percent share of any profit made at the box office in excess of $12,500,000. That negotiation point seemed a waste of time to Howard Lindsay: for goodness sake, what picture ever made more than that?
The world would have to wait half a decade before show biz prognosticators learned that The Sound of Music would eventually earn more than ten times that amount during its initial release in the United States alone. In the meantime, the journey of the show—from Broadway stage to Hollywood sound stage to location shooting in Salzburg to the cinemas around the globe—would involve climbing nearly every possible mountain.
The film contract signed in June of 1960 specified that the incipient film version of The Sound of Music could not be released any earlier than the end of 1964, so as not to compete with any audience interest on Broadway or its national tour. (As it happened, both the show and tour closed before Thanksgiving 1963.) But, as far as developing the property was concerned, Hollywood seemed to have forgotten completely about The Sound of Music for years; 20th Century Fox had left its $1,250,000 investment sitting in a file cabinet on the studio lot in Culver City. But, by 1962, Fox Studios was in a precarious financial situation—no thanks to its big box office bomb, Cleopatra, along with some other less-than-savvy fiscal decisions. The studio was pared down to its essentials, but resources had to be marshaled to put something into production. Fox executive Richard Zanuck scoured the studio’s script library to find a potential blockbuster. It had been sitting there all along. “I thought The Sound of Music was such a wonderful piece of family entertainment,” he said. “And it had been so hugely successful, it was just an obvious thing to do. Even though the studio couldn’t release the picture [until 1964 at the earliest], you could be ready for release when your date comes.”
Five months after The Sound of Music opened, it took home six trophies at the 1960 Tony Awards, including Best Musical (which it shared with Fiorello!); a few week later, the show received another prize—a $1,250,000 check for the film rights, signed by 20th Century Fox.
It was also obvious which writer Zanuck would put on the project. Ernest Lehman was one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, having adapted acclaimed screen versions of the Broadway musicals West Side Story and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Besides his impeccable reputation as an adaptor who displayed remarkable fidelity to the original material, Lehman also thought The Sound of Music had huge potential to be a movie success. He and his wife had seen it on Broadway a few weeks after it opened and, during intermission, it occurred to Lehman that, despite the derision that the musical had taken from the New York intelligentsia, it might work even better on screen.
After Lehman was officially signed on in December 1962, he and Zanuck moved forward to put the pieces of the production together. Rumor had it that Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros, wanted to keep The Sound of Music off the market so it would not compete with his upcoming multimillion-dollar film version of My Fair Lady and offered Fox two million dollars to shelve its plans; Zanuck refused the $750,000 windfall. Zanuck and Lehman now concentrated on directors. Their first choice was Robert Wise, a much-respected director who had just won an Academy Award for helming the film of West Side Story (with codirector Jerome Robbins); Lehman had enjoyed his collaboration with Wise on that picture, but Wise had been assigned another big picture for Fox.
So, Zanuck and Lehman went down the list of successful directors of movie musicals, but were rejected by both Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (who purportedly threw Lehman out of his house.) For a few months, veteran director William Wyler seemed interested—his German background was compelling for the project—but he eventually passed. As luck or chance would have it, Robert Wise’s big picture for Fox, The Sand Pebbles, had been postponed. Lehman used this opportunity to slip his draft of The Sound of Music unofficially to Wise. To Lehman’s surprise, Wise was impressed by the script adaptation and started listening to the cast album of the Broadway show. He sought advice from a friend and colleague, Saul Chaplin, whose musical acumen on movie projects was second to none, and the director signed his contract in November 1963.
Andrews had been notoriously passed over for the chance to reprise her role in the movie version of My Fair Lady in favor of Audrey Hepburn. Still, Hollywood beckoned and by early 1964, she already had two movies in the can awaiting release—Mary Poppins and The Americanization of Emily.
With Wise signed, the new creative team had to think seriously about casting. Mary Martin, the Broadway Maria, had not made a movie in nearly twenty years, so she was clearly not an option to play Maria in the film version. Doris Day, then at the height of her box-office power, was being pitched heavily by her agent. (Richard Rodgers was dismissive of this idea.) Other names considered were Leslie Caron, Anne Bancroft, and Shirley Jones, but the name of one actress—who hadn’t even been in a released motion picture yet--kept cropping up: Julie Andrews.
Andrews—not yet thirty years old—had been a Broadway darling since 1956, when she originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the legendary original production of My Fair Lady. She had since starred in Camelot on Broadway and in the television version of Cinderella, written by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Andrews had been notoriously passed over for the chance to reprise her role in the movie version of My Fair Lady in favor of Audrey Hepburn. Still, Hollywood beckoned and by early 1964, she already had two movies in the can awaiting release—Mary Poppins and The Americanization of Emily. Wise later recounted that “I knew about Julie. I heard about her. I’d never met her, never seen her. So we got an okay to call Disney, the producer of Mary Poppins, and asked if we could come over and see some of the cut film to see how she was. So I went over there with Ernie Lehman and Saul Chaplin to see it. And we saw two or three minutes of it, and the minute she came on, that was it, no question. We went right back to the studio and said, ‘That’s our girl. Sign her.’”
The opportunity presented to Andrews by The Sound of Music was a huge one, but she was not immediately sure she wanted to be in another musical. Mary Poppins had yet to be released and she was enjoying filming the straight dramatic lead in The Americanization of Emily. Andrews had another concern, as well: she thought the original material might be too saccharine to play well on the big screen. However, once she agreed to take the part, she sat down with Wise at the Fox studio commissary and expressed her reservations. He explained to Andrews that he wanted to take a less sentimental, more textured approach to the material. Apparently, a spoonful of medicine helped the sugar go down and Andrews was both appeased and inspired to begin her work with Wise, whom she later credited for giving her a master class in movie-acting technique.
With Andrews signed, the attention turned to casting the role of Captain von Trapp. Fox executives were keen on Bing Crosby, but Wise never took that suggestion seriously. William Wyler, during the time he was considering directing the picture, courted Rex Harrison. (Although the thought of a My Fair Lady reunion with Julie Andrews is a provocative one, Harrison would have been badly miscast.) Other names submitted to Wise included Sean Connery, Peter Finch, Louis Jourdan, and Maximillian Schell. Yul Brynner lobbied extensively for the part. The notion of having Brynner reprise a stern patriarch in a Rodgers & Hammerstein score might have seemed like a sure thing at the box office, but Wise was determined to make The Sound of Music feel as fresh as possible. He had been impressed with a classical actor who, while only thirty-five years old, had taken the stages of London, New York, and his native-born Canada by storm: Christopher Plummer. Plummer had extensive experience performing onstage and in serious drama on television, but his movie career, in 1963, was nothing to write home about. Still, he was lukewarm to Wise’s advances; for an actor who had played Hamlet, Mercutio and Cyrano de Bergerac, Georg von Trapp seemed to Plummer stiff and dull—in his own words, “a frightful square.” Ernest Lehman was sent to convince Plummer, and together they collaborated on drawing out some of the Captain’s (and Plummer’s) ironical sense of humor, adding a pervading sadness that gave the character some additional depth; it was Lehman’s enthusiasm that convinced Plummer to sign on the dotted line.
Wise now had two youthful, attractive, talented leads who were largely unknown as international movie stars, so he filled the rest of the adult roles with a variety of familiar faces. Richard Haydn, a beloved character actor from the 1940s, took on the role of the self-serving impresario Max Detweiler (although it is intriguing to imagine what one of Wise’s suggestions—Noël Coward—would have done with the part). The stylish and elegant Eleanor Parker was cast as Baroness Elsa Schraeder. Parker, also a Hollywood fixture since the early 1940s, was probably the most well-known cast member prior to the movie’s release. For the von Trapp children, Wise and his casting consultants interviewed hundreds of young actors and actresses in London, New York, and Los Angeles before asking nearly 200 of them to audition. Casting one child actor is difficult enough; casting seven who must be credible as a family—in addition to being personable, musical, and the right height—was a huge challenge. Unlike the previous stage incarnations, Wise decided the von Trapp children should not all be blond and Aryan-looking, but have a physical and emotional variety among them. He whittled the number of actors down to fourteen—two families of seven each—mixed and matched them, and finally chose his seven children in time to begin rehearsal on February 10, 1964.
Well, six children. The part of Liesl was proving difficult to cast. She had to appear credible as a naïve sixteen (going on seventeen, of course) and still be engaging enough to hold down the romantic subplot. Wise auditioned such future stars as Mia Farrow, Victoria Tennant, Lesley Ann Warren, and Teri Garr, but Wise and the casting people kept coming back to Charmian Farnon, a poised and fetching young woman who had no previous film acting experience. Farnon was signed nearly two weeks after the other children were already in rehearsal on the Fox lot. There were two slight problems: Farnon was actually twenty-one, going on twenty-two, and her last name simply would not do. The latter issue was resolved with a name change to Charmian Carr and the former would have to be settled by costumes and lighting—Carr certainly would hardly be the first movie ingénue not to act her age.
First, though, were the rehearsals for the principals at the Fox lot in Culver City, California, in March of 1964. Production began with the children rehearsing their musical numbers with the film’s essential music director Saul Chaplin, music supervisor Irwin Kostal (also a West Side Story alumnus), and the choreographic team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood. Breaux and Wood had already worked with Andrews on Mary Poppins and they had a superb sense of how the cameras could take their work into another dimension. Wood explained, “As opposed to a proscenium on the stage, where you just have a picture that [audiences] look at, when we’re doing a film, we can go all over the place.” (But there was room for improvement—when Lehman saw an early run-through of the pillow-throwing segment of “My Favorite Things,” he thought it was far too meticulously choreographed and suggested that Breaux and Wood create something more spontaneous.) All of the musical numbers in the movie seem to flow out of natural actions and motivations; there’s nothing “dance-y” in the final product.
While rehearsals of the physical numbers were going on, the complex process of pre-recording began under the baton of Irwin Kostal. By then, both Andrews and Plummer had reported for duty. Prerecording musical numbers with a full orchestra is a complex task for any motion picture, but the cast of The Sound of Music had to record their songs weeks before filming began, before they could inhabit their roles physically, let alone do so on location. Julie Andrews explained the complexity: “You have to try to imagine exactly what you might be doing without knowing in any way what you’ll be doing.” In other words, if you get to the location shoot in Austria and spontaneously want to chuckle as you skip across a meadow, it must synch up to the playback recorded months before or you are pretty much out of luck. Still, pre-recording went particularly smoothly (Andrews is an acknowledged pro at laying down tracks) and cameras were ready to roll on 26 March 1964.
The first week of initial shooting in Los Angeles began with the storm sequence in Maria’s bedroom and included “My Favorite Things” (revised pillow fight included). Next, most of the Nonnberg Abbey interior sequences were filmed. (From their location scouting, Wise and his crew knew that the nuns at the actual Nonnberg would not let them film interiors there.) Boris Leven, the production designer, had done such an impressive job with recreating the cloister and graveyard that, for years, tour guides in Salzburg thought the graveyard was a location site near St Peter’s Church.) By 17 April, initial filming was completed and it was time to move on to location filming in Salzburg; this would be the crucial stage in the process that would make or break the success of The Sound of Music.
In 1938, the von Trapp family journeyed to America to determine whether or not they could find freedom and good fortune. But reversing that journey—by travelling from Hollywood back to Salzburg, where the story first began—the filmmakers behind The Sound of Music would discover whether or not good fortune would smile on them as well.
Laurence Maslon is the author of The Sound of Music Companion as well as Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America. He also is the host of the weekly broadcast/podcast “Broadway to Main Street” on the NPR affiliate WLIW-FM.