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Last Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
The cult of The Sound of Music
Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (photo: Rex Features)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

As Andrew Lloyd Webber tries to find his Maria for a West End revival, why does this slice of camp continue to have such a profound grip over so many people?

It's based on a true story. It's got children. Scenery. Singing nuns. It's even got Nazis. Little wonder The Sound of Music is one of a select group of films with both mass appeal and an enthusiastic cult following.

The Sound of Music is the epitome of chirpy optimism and innocence. Even though the central element of the plot is a middle-aged man trying to pull a young nun, it's regarded as the height of wholesomeness.

The Trapp Family Singers
The real von Trapps married in 1927, not 1938
Escaped by train to Italy, not by foot to Switzerland
Children's names were changed
Edelweiss was written for the musical - it's not an anthem
Eldest child was a son, not daughter
It's been described as "Hegel with songs" and a "fantasy rewriting of the Reformation", and to some it's a self-help film, a ballad of the outsider and a paean to tolerance.

For those who have been living in a cave for the past 40 years, the 1965 film sees Julie Andrews play novice nun Maria, sent out of her convent to be the governess of the von Trapp children, the seven daughters and sons of a retired navy captain.

Maria and the captain fall in love, marry and are forced to flee the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. In the film they hike over the mountains to Switzerland. In real life, the family got a train to Italy and then went on to the United States, where they toured successfully as the Trapp Family Singers.

Children's courage

Forty years on, an incarnation of the von Trapp Children is still touring, comprising four of the great grandchildren of the captain: Melanie von Trapp, 16, along with sisters Sofia, 18, Amanda, 15, and 11-year-old Justin. They will be coming to the UK next summer.

The political and historical picture is so much in favour of Austria - they should go down on their knees and thank The Sound of Music
Joerg Steinitz, assistant director
"It is something that is just really wholesome," Melanie says, from the family's Montana home.

"It's such a wonderful story and the fact it's all true makes it even more special. We aren't ashamed at all. We love the story.

"It is the courage that the children and the whole family had to stand up against what was so wrong and so evil. Most of Austria was letting Hitler come into the country."

Four decades on from the film, and Salzburg in Austria welcomes 300,000 Sound of Music fans a year. According to the authorities, the appeal of the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical runs Mozart close as an attraction.

Joerg Steinitz worked as an assistant director on Robert Wise's film.

"It contains everything that makes a good film for Americans - it is a migration film, there are children, there's music, the landscape, and Nazis. All you need."

Swastika controversy

But in Austria the film is far from being an institution, and there has long been a strange ambivalence towards it.

Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews on set
"To be quite honest we were really afraid it would flop. I try and explain to Americans by saying it is as if a Japanese crew went to Nebraska to film a Western. It wouldn't generate a lot of interest," Mr Steinitz says.

"It is a strange attitude for the Salzburg people. To say the least, they don't know it. On the first run the film was shown for only three days. A lot of people were upset that it didn't look Austrian."

And, he says, there was controversy at the time over how the Anschluss would be portrayed. The director originally wanted 500 arriving German soldiers being greeted by an equal-sized crowd of extras, but the eventual compromise with the town meant a much smaller force, indifferent townspeople, and only three Swastika flags allowed.

In the event filming ran late on the day the scene was shot and the flags baffled arriving officials at a nearby international conference. "The Soviet delegates weren't impressed," recalls Mr Steinitz.

"But the political and historical picture is so much in favour of Austria. They should go down on their knees and thank The Sound of Music. It shows the whole country more or less as being anti-Nazi, and being raped by the Anschluss."

In the film one of the children utters the immortal line: "Maybe the flag with the black spider on it makes people nervous."

Doh a deer

But it's probably safe to say that such political nuances are not a factor for many of the film's fans.

Fans dressed as brown paper packages tied up with string
Brown paper packages tied up with string
The hills
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
The Sun
For seven years Sing-a-long-a-Sound-of-Music has toured the country, as well as a permanent berth at London's Prince Charles Cinema. Every month, zealots turn up in fancy dress. Many come as nuns, or as brown paper packages tied up with string. A few even wear fake grass to as "the hills".

Supposedly inspired by group singing sessions in an Inverness old people's home as a form of group therapy, it's been heralded as a unique bonding experience.

Abi Finley, 23, is one of 10 finalists competing to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber's revival in BBC One's talent quest How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? The Mancunian singer claims to have seen the film more than 1,000 times.

"Maybe I should get some medical help. But it is such a beautiful story. The message behind it is confidence and believing in yourself.

"It is great to be in a room of 500 people obsessed with the show. They sigh at the same time, laugh at the same time, well up at the same time. And it's got some sort of moral fibre."

Gay Times arts editor Joe Heaney says that Maria's transformation is key to the story's enduring popularity.

"It's about someone who is a complete outsider, she has been living in a convent and is very afraid to live in the real world and yet she is able to conquer her fears."

And that is something that has universal appeal.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

For me it has the unique quality of being able to make me laugh and cry at the same time with its unique combination of emotion and corniness. Surely the high point has to be the Mother Superior singing "Climb every mountain".
Nicholas, London

Long time ago, when my friend was looking after a girls' hockey team on tour in Dublin, the plan was to go and see the Sound of Music one evening. However the girls were not admitted to the cinema because the film was not for general viewing and were deemed to be too young. Something to do with a woman in the film deciding not to become a nun was how it was explained to me.
John, Wolfville, Canada

I recently visited Salzburg, and was surprised to find Mozart chocolates and giant globe mural things everywhere, and relatively little celebrating the film, except a few tours. However, after speaking to our taxi driver, we realised that although these Austrians are aware of the film, and know an enormous amount of trivia about it, they do not have the same love for it, and rather see it as a tourist oppurtunity. This has given me a different view on the film, so although I love it just as much, and occasionally point and yell, "I've been there!", I see it as more of a romanticised and Anglicised story, than an honest picture of Salzburg.
Bex, Hertfordshire

The Sound of Music is to movies what chocolate or mashed potatoes is to food, its comforting and gives you a warm feeling inside! I know its generally considered a bit naff to enjoy this film, but I just have to hear that opening song and it immediately sends me off into nostalgia-land, dark winter afternoon, cuddled up under a blanket and everything all right with the world...
Angela Blight, Grimsby, N. E. Lincs

This film has a very special place in my own family history. My sisters and I (of which there are 5) grew up singing various selections of music from the film in public and to this day, whenever we get together, we have a session round the piano re-living those times. When my mother died 10 years ago, we included a selection from this film in her memorial service and even now, my eldest sister claims that, when she is laying awake at night, she can forget all her worries by visualising (and hearing in her head) the written score!
Julie Green (nee Bateman), West Sussex, England

I was brought up in the wilds of Africa by a Julie Andrews look-a-like mother who belted out 'The hills are alive' to all who could hear. Just a mention of the film makes me feel content and fuzzy. I am now a primary school teacher in Australia and am ensuring a little part of the antipodean population is well and truly indoctrinated with its charm.
Auto rock, Melbourne, Australia

It's the Movie Poster (shown at the top of your piece) that I think is incredible. It visually sums up the emotion of the film. You can almost smell the ozone; a beautiful meadow streching towards majestic mountains and a young girl dancing with joy and energy. Innocent, nostalgic and instantly recognisable.
Ken, Colchester

I have never seen The Sound of Music as I fear singing schmaltzy nuns would leave me cold
Suzi, Portsmouth

I think Julie Andrews had the most sublime voice on the planet. Pure and with only a bit of vibrato. I went to see Mary Poppins in the West End and was disappointed that the lead character's voice was much too wobbly. I do hope they find someone with a not-too-wobbly voice.
Monica Cooper, New Malden UK

Most of my friends look at me in wary bafflement when I mention my love of the film. And be warned, do not watch with someone you fancy, as spontaneous word-perfect singing can be off-putting. But when you do run into another real fan, it's a great moment. Right, I know what I'm doing this weekend...
Suz, Southend

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