“Let’s Start at the Very Beginning” – Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music
As a Jew and lover of musicals living and studying in Vienna, Austria, in the 60s, I was interested in seeing The Sound of Music dubbed into German. When they sang “Climb Every Mountain,” the audience, living in an Alpine country, understandably laughed. It would be like hearing in Fullerton a song celebrating “Drive Every Freeway.” However, when Uncle Max, in anger and disgust, tore down the Nazi flag with its swastika, the whole audience gasped. They were still living under the shadow of Nazi-induced fear and hatred. Without that flag, without Max’s rebellion, the driving force of the story is lost.
The Sound of Music is, on its surface, a sweet love story about a Catholic Novitiate falling in love with a Baron and his children. However, its subplot is about the oldest daughter falling in love with a seemingly nice young man who reveals that he has joined the Nazi cause.
Underlying the plot, beneath its sugary and romantic surface is the seduction of good people by an ideology of hate and violence. The story is about this family standing against the Nazis and having to flee for their lives to Switzerland. Cutting out the reality of Naziism and its symbols renders this story meaningless. Replacing the rightly hated swastika with a rainbow or unicorn, or as in Europe today, an abstract lightning bolt, is to tell a lie. But it’s complicated.
If you are going to do The Sound of Music, cleaning it up is to change its meaning, but not cleaning it up can cause pain to people in the community and confuse 6th graders who may be dressed in brownshirts with swastikas and have to say “Heil Hitler.” Can they understand the hatred at the core of the symbols, and can such understanding lead to compassion and empathy for all who are hated, oppressed, and marginalized? Is this a teachable moment? I don’t know.
Sixth grade is pretty young for this material. Would I want to see my children, who have been in theatre, and my grandchildren, some of whom live for musical theatre, dressed in Nazi regalia? No. It would hurt my heart. But, if they were cast, would I nonetheless attend because the message, if left intact, is important? Yes—hurting heart and all.
What to do with valid opinions on both sides and painful histories being central to much of our American discussions of slavery and oppression? If they produce this musical, do it with the symbols but take this opportunity to put it in context.
Have discussions in the school about the painful and tragic cost of hate. Talk about the seductiveness of belonging to groups that confuse hatefulness with patriotism. Have the historical context printed in the program and read in front of the curtain before each performance. Have the performers’ parents sign permission for their children to appear in Nazi uniforms.
However, I must admit that I have begged an essential question. Should this musical be put on in the first place by 6th graders? My answer is No.
I do not believe it’s age appropriate. I asked myself if they chose this because Sweeney Todd or The Rocky Horror Show was unavailable. After all, you can’t do Sweeney Todd without butchery and cannibalism or The Rocky Horror Show without sex and nudity. Neither can you cut the Nazis and their imagery from The Sound of Music. I wish it hadn’t been chosen for 6th graders, but if you do it, do it right and thoroughly explore the wrongs.