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Confessions of a stubborn critic: Ending a 'Sound of Music' streak

I have a confession to make, and I invite you all to judge me for it:

In more than three decades as a human being living in the United States, on the Planet Earth, I have somehow evaded "The Sound of Music," one of the most popular musicals in American history.

My solution to solving a problem like Maria was to leave it to Maria.

I would rather climb any mountain than sit through "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."

And when I accidentally caught a glimpse of "So Long, Farewell" during a television broadcast of the film, I took it as a piece of personal advice.

There is probably a German word to describe the combination of pride and embarrassment I feel at admitting this, especially because I have spent 10 of those years as a theater critic for this newspaper.

But on Tuesday night at around 7:30, when the curtain goes up on a new touring production of the show in Shea's Performing Arts Center, my shameful, 35-year-streak will come to an end.

How is it possible that someone who has loved musicals since he was on his high school stage crew, who has worn out his copy of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," and has seen many hundreds of theater productions in Buffalo and beyond has managed to sidestep this American classic?

(Insert angry reader comment about my lack of qualifications here.)

Part of it has to do with spare time, which always seemed better spent flipping through The New Yorker or catching up on Oscar-winning films than solving my Rodgers and Hammerstein blind spot. Part of it has to do with circumstance: I have not been assigned to a major production of the show here since I started the job in 2007.

But most of it boils down to sheer stubbornness – a totally unjustifiable, gut-level distaste for the show based on nothing but glimpses of the 1965 film.

When I admitted this recently to Ted Chapin, the longtime president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and the man who hatched the idea for this latest tour, his answer was curt and optimistic: "You're in for a surprise."

He also offered me a reassuring piece of information: When Chapin took over the company three decades ago, he himself had never seen a stage production of the show.

At the insistence of my editor, who enjoys coming up with creative ways for me to embarrass myself in print, I have traced my own revulsion at the musical back to a very specific source. Seven of them, in fact, ages 5 to 16. Seven insufferable sources, I shudder to type, called the Von Trapp children.

Though I have never seen the film, there is one scene that, like most Americans, I have been unable to avoid because of its omnipresence on social media and in pop culture. It is the Von Trapp children's treacly and borderline psychotic performance of "So Long, Farewell," in which, like Aryan, animatronic Children of the Corn, each of them takes turns saying goodnight to a group of assembled guests in the most awkward way imaginable.

Chapin said that the idea of the show most people have is based on the 1965 film adaptation, which bears only a surface resemblance to the original show, and the tour coming to Shea's on Tuesday.

"One of the things I have felt about this production is, 'Oh, for people who have never seen it to discover it,' " Chapin said. Rodgers and Hammerstein, he added, "knew how to set stories up in ways that there's never a character that stands at the footlight to say, 'Oh look, we're in the Alps, and you know, it's a dangerous time and we have to figure it out!' They just don't do that."

In fact, Chapin said, the current tour of the show, directed by three-time Tony Award-winner Jack O'Brien, takes a much more nuanced approach to the story than the film does.

The relationship between Maria and Captain Von Trapp, which has an air of destiny in the film and in many stage versions, takes on a more realistic tone in this production.

"She has absolutely nothing in her past that prepares her to fall in love with a man. His wife has died, and he's just shut it all out completely," Chapin said. "The fact that they're attracted to each other is actually quite interesting and kind of surprising, and if you play that, it's a more interesting story."

O'Brien's approach, based on a recent production of the musical in Moscow, was not to radically retool the source material, but to highlight some of the inherent complexities that the film glosses over.

"When a good director approaches a piece of material, rather than appliqueing on top of it some major concept that sends you someplace where you don't want to be, the real art is to dive inside what's there," Chapin said.

All of this sounds reassuring to me.

And to tell the truth, I'm looking forward to seeing the unvarnished source material for the music that has given texture to some of my favorite pop cultural things.

Among them are Coltrane's famous rendition of "My Favorite Things," a touchstone of jazz that I first discovered as a teenager and frequently return to. Audra McDonald's take on "Edelweiss" is a thing of enduring beauty. And the 1996 British film "Beautiful Thing," to this day my favorite coming-of-age movie, featured a bizarre but somehow perfect insertion of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," totally divorced from its original meaning.

Consumers of culture always benefit by challenging their own preconceptions. Critics, above all, should constantly strive to reevaluate their own gut feelings and stretch their brains in uncomfortable directions. It's just taken me a little longer than usual in this particular case.

Thirty-five years is long enough, and it helps to have Chapin's guidance on the journey.

"Keep one thing in mind," Chapin said. "There are many productions I've seen that can't figure out how to make a mountain at the end for them to climb over. And even though this production will close in Buffalo and go on to the next place, they figured out a way to do that, and it's pretty remarkable."

I will admit that I have made an unnecessary mountain of my own resistance to "The Sound of Music." And I'll be glad to conquer it at last.


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