Taking the Sound of Music home to Salzburg

Wietske van Tongeren as Governess Maria Rainer in the Salzburg production of Sound of Music

More than half a century after the premiere of one of the world's best-loved musicals, the show is, for the first time, being staged in Salzburg, where it is set - and even now the people of the beautiful baroque city have some misgivings.

How do you solve a problem like The Sound of Music in Salzburg?

The Hollywood film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer has a fanatical following in the English-speaking world.

It tells the true story of Maria the novice nun who sings her way into the hearts of Captain von Trapp and his family - and then flees with them as Austria is annexed to Nazi Germany.

The 1965 film, with its soaring shots of the mountains around Salzburg, attracts thousands of tourists to the city every year.

But many Austrians can't sing a note of it.

Image caption The Nazi era remains an uncomfortable subject for some Salzburgers

It's partly because the piece celebrates a Hollywood fantasy vision of Austria. While it may be one of Fraulein Maria's favourite things, no self-respecting Austrian would ever eat schnitzel with noodles - only with potato salad, or possibly with chips.

The movie has rarely been shown on Austrian television, though there has been a stage production in repertory at Vienna's Volksoper since 2005.

Reinhold Wagnleitner, a professor of history at the University of Salzburg, who specialises in American studies, says the movie is not "the real thing".

"It's too syrupy, it's kitsch," he told me.

"It's as if an Austrian author would make a film in German about the Mersey Sound with an Austrian crew in Liverpool and expect the Liverpudlians to think it is a great music film."

Homage to Austria

More sensitive still is the way the piece touches on Austria's Nazi past.

Image caption "Doe a deer", as sung by Julie Andrews, is now "Do like the Danube"

For decades Austria claimed to be the first victim of Nazi Germany, but in recent years people have come to acknowledge the extent of Austrian responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.

The co-director of the musical at the Salzburger Landestheater, Christian Struppeck says some people in Salzburg still find the issue uncomfortable.

"The Nazi era is part of the show and until today it is a difficult subject, so we have to be careful how we treat this in the show," he says. "But we think it is important that it is in there."

Even the star of the show, Uwe Kroeger, who plays, Captain von Trapp, had never seen the movie.

"It's a strange journey for me because I was never intrigued," he told me.

"I always liked the story but I never really liked the music, or I wasn't really into it until we actually now rehearsed it and I watched the movie.

"And when you see the movie for the first time, the first images of the mountains, it is like an homage to Salzburg and this country - it's beautiful. And I actually cried a little bit, because I thought why didn't I watch it before?"

City of Mozart

The directors have confidence in the musical, and have aimed this production squarely at a local audience.

It has been translated into German. "Doe, a deer, a female deer," has now become "Do, so wie der Donaustrom," which translates as "Do, like the Danube river" - something English speakers could find disconcerting.

A couple of plot details have also been changed. The von Trapp family no longer escapes over the mountains into Switzerland, because everyone here knows that if you climb over the mountains near Salzburg, you end up in Germany.

But that still may not be enough to make this a hit.

Reinhold Wagnleitner says the piece isn't necessarily to local taste.

"Christopher Plummer referred to the film as the Sound of Mucus, and that explains a little bit in why the Austrians wouldn't be interested in the film so much," he told me.

"Salzburgers prefer to think of their city as the city of Mozart."

Wandering through the Mirabell Gardens, where Do Re Mi was filmed, a Salzburg couple was guardedly polite.

"I have heard it was a musical many years ago, but I have never seen it," the man said. "It seems to be quite popular in the United States. But many Austrians have never seen it."

His companion agreed. "I don't know it because I'm not English," she said. But I like music so maybe I will like the piece."

The people of Salzburg still have to be convinced about The Sound of Music, but this production might be a very good place to start.