With Tina the most recent tenant of the Lunt-Fontanne, one wonders if somewhere, lurking in the bones of the theatre, there’s something left from a very different opening that occurred 61 years ago. As with Tina, that show was centered around the life story of a singer, troubled but perhaps not tempestuous, and not one with Tina Turner’s electricity. The musical soundtrack to that woman’s life was gentler, filled with madrigals, folk songs, and group harmonies. And rarely was a microphone in sight.
The woman from 61 years ago was Maria von Trapp, and she was played by one of Broadway’s leading ladies: Mary Martin. The show was The Sound of Music. It was, in fact, created around the star, based on a couple of German movies that were based on the memoirs of a feisty would-be nun who unexpectedly found a new occupation when sent as a nanny to the house of an autocratic captain in the Austrian navy (when Austria had enough of a coastline to warrant a navy). She found a bunch of children who were sorely in need of a different kind of discipline, and a captain who had closed himself off to almost everything emotional. Wonderfully dramatic things happened—she and the captain fell in love and married. The show made of her story was originally going to be a play with music, since in life, Maria organized the family into a singing group. But the wise Broadway hands who were tasked with turning the story into a vehicle for their star wondered whether madrigals and folk songs would be acceptable in a world of Gypsy and Take Me Along. Someone suggested that they ask their friends Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to write a few songs to augment the repertoire of what became known as The Trapp Family Singers.
We all have Rodgers and Hammerstein to thank for listening to the outline of Maria von Trapp’s story, and telling the star, the writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, producer Leland Hayward, and director Vincent Donohue that they felt an entirely new score felt like a better idea, and that the show really should be a full-out musical. Everyone agreed, and waited for Flower Drum Song to open in December of 1958 before diving headfirst into the show that was, at one point, called Love Story. Encouraged by their lawyer to find a less generic title—also one that would be easier to brand—Richard Rodgers came up with The Sound of Music.
There was one thing about the opening of The Sound of Music that went down in Broadway history: The critics didn’t much like the show. Everyone connected with it was a seasoned pro, but still, this was a blow. However, the authors and creative staff all went to the second night to see how a more regular audience would react, and in the words of Max Wilk, “From the moment Mary Martin began to sing ‘The Sound of Music,’ there was electricity in the theatre…” Out in the lobby at intermission, Oscar Hammerstein II turned to the rest of the group and said, “Make no mistake about it, this is a hit. Just look and listen to that audience. They couldn’t care less about the reviews. I promise you, this is a smash hit.”
He was right. And so it has continued to be, encouraged, of course, by the film that 20th Century Fox made and released in 1965.
But no matter what one feels about Julie Andrews twirling on that gorgeous hillside, or the bicycles riding along that lake, know that it all began 61 years ago, on the same stage where today, the story of Tina Turner is being told. Just think—that opening occurred as Tina Turner was touring in a singing group called The Kings of Rhythm as “Little Ann.” For both she and The Sound of Music, 1959 was a very important year.