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The Sound of Music: A Disturbing Musical

            I became troubled during the performance last night of The Sound of Music.  I wouldn’t blame you if you believed that I was deranged to think that the family-friendly feel-good musical of all time was disturbing, but let me explain.

            First, however, kudos to the Topeka Civic Theatre for an excellent production.  Also, Cair Paravel Latin School, where I teach, was well represented from the Mother Abbess all the way to little Gretl, the youngest of the von Trapp children.

            Now, I have never been a big fan of The Sound of Music, but last night I became impatient with critics who denounce it as saccharine and superficial.  Are they disappointed that Liesl didn’t slip out to spend the night at Rolf’s?  Were they hoping that the Nazis would capture the family and execute them?  Only an abysmal lack of imagination could think that leaving one’s homeland and possessions because of a principled opposition to Nazi oppression is superficial.

            “Superficial” meaning “shallow” or “trivial” is not what The Sound of Music is.  Nevertheless “superficial” literally means relating to the surface.  Here is where I became disturbed.  Beneath the surface of central European culture, so rich in music, architecture and literature, so highly educated and advanced scientifically, and officially Christian, was the ravenous demonic Nazi monster.  The surface cracked, and the monster either consumed or perverted all that was good.  The surface was not strong enough to bury the horrific creature.  Decent people compromised or had to flee.  All resistance was crushed.

            As I, sit seemingly safe and secure in my lovely air-conditioned home in America, I wonder what monster is lurking beneath the surface to devour us.  Will we be caught unawares too?  Certainly our surface is not as strong as was Germany’s and Austria’s.  Family life is often fragmented or nonexistent.  The church is badly divided and increasingly marginalized.  Entertainment’s omnipresent violence and sex have robbed our children of the innocence that the von Trapp children had.

            The surface of American culture is badly weakened and cracked.  Some sort of monstrosity is working its way through.  Violence in our urban areas and foreign policy is prevalent.  That individuals commit mass murder in schools and movie theaters should not deceive us into thinking that these are isolated incidents.  They represent a deep social malaise.  The sexual revolution is ravaging family and individual lives.  The attitude towards our institutions is characterized by a pervasive cynicism.  The list goes on and on.  My guess is that the monster will take, not the Nazi form of an appeal to the fatherland, but rather some sort of grotesque combination of a defense of freedom with a promise of security and prosperity.  I am no prophet, however.

            What to do?  It is a sin to despair.  Perhaps The Sound of Music gives us a hint.  The Mother Abbess tells the von Trapps to look to the hills from which comes their help.  What is not said is that she is alluding to Psalm 121, which actually asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where will my help come.”  And the answer?  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Music: A Disturbing Musical

  1. Bill, I do not find your reaction odd. In fact, this is what classics do — make us think about the timeless problems of the world and society. I am glad you were able to finish on an optimistic note. We should remind ourselves more often that “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Thank you for this reflection.

  2. It strikes me that you wrote this in 2012 and it was so insightful about America’s monster it could almost be prescient. It is mid 2021 now and I am meditating on The Sound of Music, and its non-trivial ideas now with an even fuller understanding and keener sense of relevance due to what we’ve seen emerge from under the surface. I have found comfort in watching the 1965 film a few times over the past three years and just watched a 2015 production with Kara Tointon as Maria that I had not yet seen just last night/this morning! I had to finally make the connection to Psalm 121 and that’s how I found your entry. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment, Kalonica (if I may call you by your first name). It led me to reread this old post and, yes, it is perhaps even more troubling or obviously troubling looking at America now. Still, the answer is the same–to lift up our eyes to the hills to the Lord. On another note, is the 2015 production of The Sound of Music available? I remember watching the Carrie Underwood live production and being disappointed. It is difficult for me to imagine somebody other that Julie Andrew in the role, especially with her beautifully clear voice. Perhaps that is unfair. Once again, thank you for your comment.

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