A soaring Broadway production that dares to celebrate moral integrity
There are currently three shows playing on Broadway that deal with World War II Nazism, The Diary of Anne Frank, Cabaret, and The Sound of Music, but the only one worth the price of a ticket is The Sound of Music.
It seems unfathomable to believe that a production that opens with cloistered nuns joyfully chanting ancient prayers, blessing themselves, and bowing at the singing of Gloria Patri … could be the utterly captivating and satisfying entertainment that it is. This same spirit of reverence and grace permeates the entire production, especially in its promotion of goods that the secular world considers far from commercial: uncompromising moral conviction, family life, fatherhood, the beauty of childhood, patriotism, the triumph of good over evil, redemption. The list goes on.
All the production values are first rate. Susan Schulman's meticulous direction never misses. Heidi Ettinger's immensely imaginative scenery is entrancing and evocative while at the same time being practical, functional, and rich in symbolism. Catherine Zuber's enchanting costumes lend mesmerizing elegance. The cast is excellent, especially Rebecca Luker's fresh and lovable Maria. This exquisite production proves that “stars” are not needed for success. The entire production exudes love.
Moreover, this stage production is far more sophisticated and less sentimental than the movie version. That enhancement is due to the inclusion of two great songs that the movie omits. In a masterful parody, the song How Can Love Survive asserts the way the over-abundance of money, security, and creature comforts dooms love. Only self-giving sacrifice ensures love's survival. In the second song, No Way to Stop It, Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler scheme to get their friend Capt. Georg von Trapp to concede his allegiance to the Nazis as they have. Theirs is a world of laxism and fatalism, and “the center of the universe is ‘I.’” But, as the upright and uncompromising captain poignantly replies, “You don't save yourself by giving in.” In the play, unlike the movie, the glamorous Elsa Schraeder (superbly played by Jan Maxwell) breaks off her relationship with the captain — not because she feels defeated by Maria, but because she is more enamored of the Nazis. Elsa wants the captain to marry her on her own intractable terms, but the captain is willing to do so only on God's terms.
That celebration of moral integrity is perhaps what makes this production most compelling. In an era of rampant relativism and individualism, especially on Broadway, it is more than refreshing to hear Capt. von Trapp profess to Maria: “In this uncertain world, a man can't promise anything except love.” And for Maria to resist the conniving of the captain's would-be friends by avowing: “I will not ask Georg to pretend to be less than he is.”
That is what this play is about: being the persons God has created us to be. The play offers a profound commentary on the grandeur of the human vocation as it is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father's only Son…. Man's vocation is to make God manifest by acting in conformity with his creation ‘in the image and likeness of God’” (1877, 2085).
No wonder the audience rejoices whenever the sagely child Brigitta (played with aplomb by Tracy Alison Walsh) is on-stage, for “Brigitta always tells you the truth … especially when you don't want to hear it.”
In the same way, Maria's decision to leave the convent is not a repudiation of religious life, but rather a celebration of it. Maria realizes that consecrated life is not God's will for her — an awareness that only deepens her love for the nuns and their life. In this way, the production depicts religious life with true authenticity and genuine depth — unlike so many other romanticized and trivialized stage portrayals. When the Nazis invade the monastery, violating the Church's ageold sanction, one child asks with breathtaking guilelessness: “Isn't this God's house?” Even the littlest ones recognize the horror of sacrilege long before they can spell it.
Holiness has its privileges. When Capt. von Trapp believes himself to be trapped with his family in the Nazi-filled abbey, he now looks upon the mountains that he has so-long loved as his enemies. We know how he feels, for throughout the performance we feel surrounded and uplifted by Ettinger's stunning mountain vistas. However, Mother Abbess assures him that the mountains are in fact the family's way to freedom. They are not enemies, but friends and saviors. In this way, the play shows us how those things in our own life that seem like towering obstacles can really be instruments of grace.
The central emblem for this production is an ingenious, massive souvenir snow-globe suspended in the middle of the proscenium curtain. The snow-globe is supported by a trinity of angels — a powerful symbol that God is holding the world in his hands, and that his Divine Providence will prevail. If beauty is the happy union of truth and goodness, then this production is profoundly beautiful.
One hopes The Sound of Music will set the new standard for all theater on Broadway.
The Sound of Music is playing at the Martin Beck Theater, 302 West 45th Street, New York City.
Senior writer Father Peter John Cameron is an award-winning playwright with a master's degree in playwriting from The Catholic University of America.