Last night, if you have eyes and ears and a heart and a very specific kind of childhood, you watched NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood and country vampire Stephen Moyer. I can’t do the usual journalist thing of telling you what you should think about it in advance, because I wrote this on Thursday—which means I haven’t seen it yet. It’s live! Just like a real Broadway show! I can’t tell you if Carrie Underwood is good or if Vampire Bill lost control and drained Herr Zeller right after he and Maria performed the Laendler or if the fastening on Brigitta von Trapp’s sailor skirt came undone due the vigorous choreography during “Do-Re-Mi,” forcing her to dance robotically with her arms straight against her sides in what she will later refer to as an interpretive choice satirizing the industrialized cruelty of the encroaching fascist state. (I wouldn’t know anything about that.)
What I can tell you is I really hope you watched it. With your very small children, if you have any. Or your very small grandkids. Or your very small nieces and nephews. Or hell, your very small dog should he have recently come across a certain book in the library and started asking tearful questions about why everybody hates the Jews. (For the record, this has not happened with my dog. He knows why.) The Sound of Music (along, perhaps, with The Music Man) is the ultimate gateway musical, leading susceptible children into a lifetime of perfecting their chest voices and arguing the competing merits of Bernadette vs. Patti. It has everything: kids, marching, puppets (in the film version at least), and a brief lesson on how to say goodbye in three languages. It’s also a perfect gateway for introducing your kids to the concept of the Holocaust.
Yes, I know it’s saccharine. There’s a reason the movie is compulsory family viewing on Easter and Christmas and all the other times picture-perfect American families want to cuddle up and feel good about themselves. Yes, for precisely this reason, Christopher Plummer, the film’s dashing star, referred to it until recently as The Sound of Mucus in interviews. No, the von Trapps aren’t Jewish, and their experiences—the compassionate, mechanically adept nuns, the privileged existence and uncompromised family unit, the unbelievably scenic hike to freedom over the most gorgeous part the Tyrolean Alps—is hardly representative of your garden-variety enemies of the Reich; the choice between whether to take a high-paying, prestigious commission in Donitz’s Navy or to flee, probably to a pretty nice house, in Switzerland is what you might call a “high-class Holocaust problem.”
But that’s exactly the point. A child’s first encounter with the most sinister regime of the 20th-century should be a relatively painless one—that’s the luxury we have, living in the present day. The Sound of Music is suspenseful, but not too scary; bittersweet, but not tragic. There is little sense that the family won’t somehow wind up OK; at all times the children are cherished and protected, as children should be. Might not the Christians be onto something by telling kids about the Easter Bunny before they get into all the really gory details of the Crucifixion? Let them get slowly accustomed to the idea of Nazis first, to these bad people who thought everyone should be like them and wanted to hurt anyone who was different or who didn’t agree. Then you can get into all the other stuff, the death camps, the doomed children, the ghastly deaths. I don’t know much, but I do know that if my Hebrew school teacher hadn’t read us an article about the Mengele twins in about the third grade, I would have been a very different person. Better? Healthier? Who can say? But I just can’t see the point in possibly giving children a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for traumas they didn’t experience. For one thing, I’m not sure it doesn’t frighten at least some of them into never wanting to know more about this history—their history. Might it not be better to introduce the concept of ultimate evil through Salzburg, sailor suits, or song?
Because no matter what you may say about The Sound of Music, you can’t say it isn’t iconic. You can’t say the songs don’t stick in your head. (Do you find it as weird as I do to realize there was a time when “Do-Re-Mi” had not been written? It feels like it’s been around forever, like “Happy Birthday” or that Selena Gomez “if you’re re-e-e-e-e-e-a-dy” song.) Believe me, I’ve seen Yours, Anne, the musical version of The Diary of Anne Frank, and it’s nothing to write home to Kitty about—it feels less like an uplifting/devastating work of art than something you’d see on Funny or Die.
And maybe that’s as it should be. When they’re little, let them be Gretl von Trapp. There’ll be plenty of time for Anne later.
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