When The Sound of Music debuted on Broadway in 1959, many critics considered it to be too clean and sweet, and the 1965 movie earned similar reviews. The real story behind The Sound of Music, however, is nowhere near as pleasant. Possibly because the movie was based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which was based on a German film, which was inspired by a family biography written by Maria von Trapp, The Sound of Music true story underwent an odd version of the "telephone" game to become the beloved film.
Although the movie tweaked The Sound of Music real-life story by changing the number of von Trapp children from 10 to seven, and gave them all different names and ages, it left out more significant true plot elements. Some of these changes were made to give the film tension, drama, and conflict, but The Sound of Music real story has plenty of drama and conflict itself.
Just because The Sound of Music is based on a real story, don't believe everything you see on screen. Although the von Trapp family did form a famous singing group, flee from occupied Austria, and travel to America (where they still run a Vermont ski lodge), the filmmakers invented many things depicted in the movie. Having earned praise for West Side Story, director Robert Wise used Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins stardom and sweet likability to create a sentimental version of the family's life, even if it wasn't completely true. Although the movie won numerous Oscars, Wise hurt many members of the von Trapp family, as well as any viewers expecting to see the family's real story on screen. How close is The Sound of Music to the real story? Not very.
The movie changed the date of Maria and Georg's wedding from 1927 to 1938, most likely to condense the story. More significant, however, the film also invented the intense love depicted between the pair. In her autobiography, the real Maria admitted she had no romantic feelings toward Georg, who was 25 years older, writing, "I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children."
Whether Georg loved Maria or simply wanted her to stick around for his children isn't known. "I can't say I know it or I don't know..." recalled Agathe von Trapp (the eldest daughter, portrayed as "Liesl" in the film). "But since he did what he did, he must have liked her. But the way I saw it, I think she was providential, to be our second mother."
Despite Maria's lack of love for her husband at the beginning of their marriage, her feelings for him changed over time. "I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after," she said.
Georg's first wife was Agathe Whitehead, the daughter of the man who invented the torpedo. When she succumbed to scarlet fever in 1922, Georg inherited her wealth. This money allowed the von Trapp family to live comfortably until the Great Depression, but when the Lammer and Co. banking house collapsed and took the family's money with it, the von Trapps were suddenly broke. The loss came as a great shock to Georg, but Maria was resourceful and quick-thinking.
To get by, they rented out rooms, dismissed their hired help, and used the family's musical talents to earn money. "We had at least a hundred songs before she [Maria] came," said Maria Franziska von Trapp (the second-eldest daughter, portrayed as "Louisa" in the film). "What she did was teach us madrigals, and of course this is very hard to do, but we found it was no problem for us."
Georg wasn't thrilled with his family performing in public, "but accepted it as God's will that they sing for others," according to Eleonore von Trapp (one of the children not portrayed in the film).
With Maria's encouragement, the family began their legacy as a professional musical group. "My mother was the energy and the instigator that took them to almost concert quality," recalled Johannes von Trapp (the youngest child).
According to the von Trapp family, the real Maria was nothing like Julie Andrews's depiction. They said that along with a nasty temper, she was prone to slamming doors and throwing things. Daughter Maria von Trapp recalled:
From one moment to the next, you didn't know what hit her. We were not used to this. But we took it like a thunderstorm that would pass, because the next minute she could be very nice.
Her son Johannes thought of her as a "force of nature," full of life and expecting everyone else to be the same:
It wasn't easy to disagree with her but she kept everything together. She did everything quickly. She walked very fast, with a rolling gait developed from hiking in the Austrian mountains, and it was hard to keep up with her. She ate fast, she drove too fast.
After losing her parents at a young age and being raised by a hurtful relative, Maria became tough. "At one point my mother fell and broke her arm," Johannes remembered. A doctor "pulled on the elbow, and I held her wrist and we set her arm together, and she went right back to continue the photo shoot with a cast on."
Her sewing skills, however, may have been less amazing than the movie let on. "They actually did have play clothes made from curtains," grandson Sam recalled. "But then my dad told me that she wasn't much of a seamstress. I think she had the curtains made into play clothes."
According to Johannes von Trapp, the movie "was the Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the German film version of the book that my mother wrote." Although Maria sold the rights to her story to a German publisher, she had a relatively good experience when Rodgers and Hammerstein turned it into a stage musical in the late 1950s. Actress Mary Martin spent two weeks following Maria to get a sense of her character, and Maria happily posed for photos with her.
The making of the Hollywood version was a completely different experience for her, however, and 20th Century Fox reportedly didn't even tell the family they were turning their story into a movie.
"I felt very alarmed," Maria remembered. "I didn't know what they are going to do with us... Hollywood being Hollywood, [I thought] they will have me three times divorced and five times married or whatever."
Maria was so concerned, she decided to contact director Robert Wise, who recalled:
She had read in the papers that I was going to direct the film, and she got on the phone immediately to offer her services. I decided the last person we needed around was the person being portrayed in the movie.
Her reputation had preceded her. She was perceived as a forceful and forthcoming person, and I had understood that at the opening of the Broadway show, when the curtain came down, she had stood up to take her own bow.