'Sound of Music' echoes through generations

From the enlightened heights of the new millennium, it might be tempting to look down in dismay on "The Sound of Music."

"S&M" — as the movie's male star, Christopher Plummer, once dubbed it — might be seen as a creepily sexist story of an arrogant, wealthy man who seduces the virginal nanny.

Or, to put the villain's shoe on a daintier foot, it could be seen as the tale of a gold-grubbing governess who uses a wealthy widower's children as the path to his bed and his bank account.

But why bother to analyze "S&M" so strenuously?

Part of its charm is that it's a pleasure that floats beyond purely rational analysis, a fact known to anyone who has ever stood on a hill, twirling to the point of nausea, while belting out, "The hills are alive."

And I know I'm not the only one.

Almost 50 years since the movie version first seared the words "whiskers on kittens" into the collective American consciousness, "The Sound of Music" has morphed into a phenomenon for the ages.

The latest proof of its tenacity is Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production, which opened last week with this description on its website:

"Beautiful novice Maria leaves the convent to take over as governess for the seven children of Captain Von Trapp. She captures their hearts — as well as the Captain's — well, you know the rest!"

Indeed we do.

From Maria's sort-of real life to Broadway. From Broadway to Hollywood. From Hollywood to conquer the world.

For years now, "Sound of Music" singalongs have been held all over the globe, from LA to Chicago to Vienna. You could go to one this week in Kalamazoo, Mich.

In December, NBC staged a live version in prime time, and, no matter how much the critics sniped, viewers loved it. Carrie Underwood in her Alpine bodice inducted a new generation into the S&M cult.

I once tuned in to a rerun of the original movie — starring Plummer, Julie Andrews and the world's seven most photogenic children — expecting to feel smothered in smarm and embarrassed by the love I felt for the movie when I first saw it. Instead, I was rapt.

"The Sound of Music" got me in its spell when I was 12.

Staring wide-eyed at the giant screen, I dreamed that one day I, too, a poor, plucky girl with nothing but wits and virtue on my side, would stand in a gazebo under the stars, gaze into the eyes of Christopher Plummer and sing, in tune, "Perhaps I had a wicked childhood. Perhaps I had a miserable youth. But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past, there must have been a moment of truth."

I outgrew the fantasy, but I'm convinced that that dream is one reason that "The Sound of Music" lives on.

Based loosely on a true story, "The Sound of Music" reaches back into a literary tradition, at least as old as "Jane Eyre," of the smart, educated, penniless young woman who tames a moody, wealthy man with her virtue, compassion and intelligence.

"The Sound of Music" is more than a Harlequin novel, however. Set in Austria in the late 1930s as the Nazis encroach, it's also a tale — highly simplified — of the triumph of good over evil.

That's another key to its appeal: It offers heroes, villains and suspense on a grand scale. History elevates the love story.

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