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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 12:05 GMT
Austria discovers The Sound Of Music
By Bethany Bell
BBC correspondent in Vienna

The Sound Of Music is one of the world's favourite musicals, but it has hardly ever been seen in Austria because a lot of it takes place during a very painful time in the country's history when it was annexed to Hitler's Germany. But now a new stage version is playing to packed houses in Vienna.

Sandra Pires who plays Maria in the new stage version
The Sound Of Music was based on Maria von Trapp's book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers
A few years ago, a friend and I paid a visit to Salzburg. It was a glorious autumn day and we walked up the hill to the city's medieval fortress.

As we stopped to admire the view of the snow-covered mountains, we were approached by two American tourists - both women in their thirties.

"Excuse me," one of them asked me politely. "Have you seen the church where she got married?"

I was confused. Who was she?

But before I had time to ask, the second woman chimed in.

"I'm so excited. I've wanted to come here ever since I was a kid and first saw the movie."

The penny dropped. They meant the Sound Of Music.

She, of course, was Maria, the novice nun who married Captain von Trapp and fled to America to escape the Nazis.

"I'm sorry," I said. "We haven't seen the church."

Convent

Disappointed, the two women started back down the hill and we walked on.

Soon afterward we passed the Nonnberg Benedictine Convent.

"I bet that's it," said my friend, although there were no signs.

"We've got to tell them," I said and ran down the hill.

Julie Andrews on the set of the Disney film version
Julie Andrews met the original Maria during the making of the film

"We found it," I cried.

The women turned and rushed towards the convent. The pilgrims had reached their destination.

The Sound Of Music has brought almost as many tourists to Salzburg as Mozart. The film, featuring Julie Andrews in a Heidi dress, is known and loved the world over.

Everywhere, that is, except Austria.

It has hardly ever been shown in cinemas or on television in this country and the few Austrians that I know who have seen the film, did so when they were abroad.

"It's just way too American," one of them told me. "All that fuss about yodelling, lonely goatherds - it's the Disney version of Austria."

Cliches

"It's so frustrating," a Salzburg tour guide complained.

"If I wear lederhosen, an American tourist will always ask me to sing "Edelweiss". They seem to think it's the Austrian national anthem but it was written specially for the Sound Of Music and I'd never even heard of it before I went to the States."

But the clichés are just part of the problem.

The Trapp Family Singers in 1937
In the 1930s, the Trapp Family Singers toured in Europe and the USA

Far more sensitive is the way the story touches on Austria's Nazi past. The von Trapp family fled the country shortly after Austria was annexed to Hitler's Germany.

For decades Austria claimed to be the first victim of Nazi Germany. Only recently have people slowly begun to acknowledge the extent of Austrian responsibility for the Holocaust.

It is a period of history that many here prefer to forget.

So the recent decision by the Vienna Volksoper - the city's second opera house - to actually stage the show struck me as provocative and interesting, if rather risky from a business point of view.

German translation

Although there were a few Japanese tourists at the show the night I went, the production was clearly aimed at a local audience.

For one thing it has been translated into German - something English speakers could find rather disconcerting.

"My Favourite Things" for instance turns into "Die Dinge, die ich gerne mag".

The cast rehearse "Edelweiss"
The cast of the stage show rehearse "Edelweiss"

Musicals are popular in Vienna and I could see my neighbour, a bourgeois middle-aged gentleman, tapping his fingers in time to "You are sixteen, going on seventeen" ("Du bist sechzehn. Beinah schon siebzehn").

"It really is wonderful music," he told me in the interval, "part of the golden age of American musicals, I understand."

The Nazi references in the first act are minimal. But in the second act the production became more overt, with a succession of Heil Hitler salutes and Nazi officials intimidating the von Trapps.

It culminates when Captain von Trapp defiantly sings "Edelweiss" in front of an enormous swastika.

Some members of the audience began shifting uneasily in their seats as Nazi soldiers ran through the auditorium chasing the fleeing von Trapps.

Stormtroopers

"I enjoyed it but I could have done without the storm-troopers," one elderly Viennese lady told me.

A 27-year old woman disagreed. "It's important they showed the Nazi bit, to remind people what the story is really about," she said.

But others doubt whether a romantic musical is the right way to portray the darkest hours of Austrian history.

One old man, wearing a traditional Austrian loden coat, said the whole show made him feel uncomfortable.

"I lived through that time," he said, "and I don't want to have to go through it again."

Despite - or perhaps because of - the controversy, ticket sales are booming.

Some are daring to hope that the show might join the ranks of Die Fledermaus or The Merry Widow in the hearts of the Viennese.

Who knows, maybe one day even Austrian tour guides will be singing "Edelweiss"!

From Our Own Correspondent is broadcast on Saturdays at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
The Sound of Music is coming home
22 Feb 05 |  Entertainment


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