May 25, 2015


Edelweiss (Mark Steyn, November 26, 2014, SteynOnline)

In mid-October the production moved on to Boston, and Hammerstein was well enough to take the train up from New York. As usually happened on an R&H show, everything was going smoothly with just a few little peripheral matters to be attended to here and there. But, after watching the show in Boston and with only a week and a half till they moved on to Broadway, Rodgers and Hammerstein felt there was something lacking in the score. The plot of The Sound Of Music is often mocked - captain meets nun in Nazi Austria - but it works if you get the underlying emotions right. Baron von Trapp, whose family has lived on this land for generations, is facing a terrible decision: The Anschluss is transforming his country, and he has no choice but to leave it. But for that to have any impact on an audience you have to understand that this man loves his native land, and that fleeing it will exact a toll. How to express that? A song obviously. But what kind of song? Theodore Bikel, the actor and folk singer, had been cast in the role, and could certainly relate to the von Trapp experience, because he'd lived it: He had been born in Vienna but his family had escaped to British Palestine after the Anschluss. More to the point, he could also strum the guitar. So Dick and Oscar figured they should write a number Baron von Trapp could play live on stage - an "old" Austrian folk song, to be performed in Act Two as part of the Trapp family's singing act at the Kaltzberg Festival.

So fifty years ago, in a room at the Ritz-Carlton furnished with a piano, the last ever Rodgers & Hammerstein song was written. As always in this partnership, the words came first:

Every morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me...

It's such a simple idea. But the von Trapps have already decided to flee Austria, and, even if the "audience" at the Kaltzberg Festival and the various bigshot Nazis don't know that, we - the audience at the play - most certainly do. Today, most writers would hit the thing head on and write some Oh-God-I-love-this-land-I'm-gonna-miss-it-why-did-things-have-to-turn-out-like-this? overwrought ululated power ballad. But Hammerstein was a sure enough dramatist to know that, when the captain starts singing about a simple white flower, everyone in the audience would understand how much he loves his country. Edelweiss grows up high, in rocky terrain north of 6,000 feet or so, and it's long been a symbolic bloom in the Alps. In 1907, Franz Josef made it the official emblem of the Habsburg Empire's mountain troops, and it remains their insignia in the Austrian army to this day. On the other hand, the Wehrmacht and the SS also made it the official emblem for their mountain troops. Nonetheless, it took a couple of New Yorkers in a Boston hotel room to wring the full symbolic juice out of the flower. Earlier in the show, Gretl presents a small bouquet of edelweiss to Elsa Schraeder upon her visit to the von Trapp home, and so Hammerstein decided to extend its metaphorical power: Edelweiss is the Austria that will endure and, when the winter of tyranny melts, will flower anew. As always, Hammerstein's deft, memorable imagery is hopeful: "Blossom of snow/May you bloom and grow..." It's a small song for a big moment, and Rodgers set it to a wistful waltz tune, simple and folk-like but very affecting.

Posted by at May 25, 2015 6:18 AM

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