Around 1956, Stage Director Vincent J. Donehue believed that the true story of Maria von Trapp and family would be the perfect project for actress Mary Martin. Martin and Donehue, who were friends, reached out to Broadway producers Leland Hayward and Richard Halliday (Martin’s husband) to produce and from there the project took off. At the outset, the idea was to use actual German songs sung by the Trapp family for the musical scenes of the play. The producers also hoped that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II would contribute several songs as well. But the composer and lyricist thought that the work would be stronger if it were consistent. They would only participate if all of the songs were original. Leland Hayward especially knew the importance to the project of this creative team and the rest was musical history.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway on November 16, 1959, with Mary Martin starring as Maria von Trapp. It ran for an unprecedented 1,443 performances, and the play’s momentum and popularity grew with each audience’s ovation. Almost any show on Broadway during the era of the great movie musicals was bound to catch the eye of Hollywood’s greatest directors and producers who were always looking for properties to bring to film. Soon after the show gained some buzz, 20th Century Fox stepped in offering $1.2 million for the rights to The Sound of Music. Movie director Robert Wise and Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, went through several choices for Maria. After much consideration, Doris Day, the original choice, was ruled out, as was Broadway’s Mary Martin. The part was finally offered to Julie Andrews, who had starred on Broadway in Camelot and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and had just finished filming Disney’s Mary Poppins, which hadn’t been released yet. A few weeks before the deadline to confirm a star, Wise and Lehman went to Disney Studios to view footage from Mary Poppins. A few minutes into the film, Wise told Lehman, “Let’s go sign this girl before somebody else sees this film and grabs her!.”
It wasn’t long after the Broadway show premiere that artists would begin performing these songs in their own shows. And no better way to showcase their version of this melodic soundtrack than performing the songs live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Only half a mile from the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show was the perfect stage for viewers across America and Canada to experience a glimpse of this Broadway phenomenon. The first artist to perform a song from the smash hit was Marion Marlowe, who sang The Sound of Music on November 29, 1959, just 13 days after the Broadway debut of the musical. Marlowe was part of the original cast and played Baroness Schraeder. Following Marlowe’s performance, Sullivan told the audience “The Sound of Music is a perfectly wonderful show, and of course they’ve had this enormous advance sale for it but I’m sure if each one of us write to Marion Marlowe and say we applaud her tonight, she’ll get tickets for all of us!” This was just the beginning of a long list of talented performers that took these forever songs and made them special in their own style.
Some other notable Sound of Music performances came from The Supremes, Jack Jones, Jane Morgan, Sally Ann Howes, The Hollywood Bowl Cast, Dick Roman, The Kim Sisters, Florence Henderson, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, University of Miami Glee Club, Eddie Fisher and Risë Stevens.
The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture and Best Director for Wise. In the 57 years since its release, the incredible creativity involved in creating The Sound of Music, along with the values exhibited in this classic, work together to create an enduring masterpiece. In great part this is due to the film’s ability to resonate with us on a personal level through the values it encapsulates. The Sound of Music will unquestionably retain its exceptional status as one of the most beloved movies in film history.