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The Von Trapps

The newest von Trapps of Sound of Music fame

A divided staircase in the middle of an elegant entrance hall painted white. Crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, gold brocade-upholstered furniture, views through spacious windows of manicured lawns leading to a lake. And a baker’s half-dozen of children continually popping up to harmonize.

That, of course, is Sound of Music world, first glimpsed in the 1965 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show, and by now embedded in the brains of most inhabitants of the actual world. The house is the movie studio version of the von Trapp villa near Salzburg, Austria, and the children are the movie studio version of the von Trapp children.

Picture, by contrast, a mostly unfurnished four-bedroom town house in northeast Portland, Oregon. The neighborhood is called Hollywood, which is ironic, because this is real life. The bedrooms are occupied by the real grandchildren of one of the real von Trapp children immortalized in the movie. That would be Kurt, “the incorrigible one,” whose name was actually Werner. The house is unfurnished partly because the four siblings – Sofia (known as Sofi), Melanie, Amanda and August, who range in age from twenty-five down to nineteen – haven’t lived there very long, but mostly because they use the house to rest their heads at night and eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. They spend the rest of their time doing a very Sound of Music-y thing. Singing.

They’ve been singing together since they were mere babes, and doing their public “shtick,” as Sofi calls it, for about thirteen years: most of their lives, that is.

The road to the town house in Holly­wood started with a decision made years ago by the von Trapp kids’ father, Stefan – son of Werner, grandson of Captain von Trapp (otherwise known as Christopher Plummer), step-grandson of Maria (Julie Andrews). He had grown up in Vermont with a bunch of cousins, and ultimately decided the atmosphere and the real and cinematic bloodlines were a bit oppressive. With his wife, Annie, he moved far away – to Kalispell, Montana, where he learned stonemasonry skills, opened a business, and had three girls and a boy. Werner would visit in the summer – to the kids he was always “Opa,” German for “grandpa” – and teach them the Austrian folk songs he had sung as a child. One summer he was too ill to make the trip, and the kids recorded their first homemade CD so he could hear it back in Vermont.

In 2001, the New Age pianist George Winston heard the children sing at a festival in Montana and was impressed enough to have them open for him while he was touring the state. Gradually, they began to get gigs of their own. At the start, their set list consisted of Austrian folk songs and Sound of Music selections. August, who joined his sisters when he was seven, wearing lederhosen to their dirndls, was first soprano.

Stefan had done masonry work for television-series wildlife guru Jack Hanna, who has a house in Montana, and through him became friendly with Wayne Newton, whom the kids knew from the Chevy Chase movie Vegas Vacation. Newton gave them what Amanda calls “amazing advice.”

“It was right when August’s voice was changing,” Melanie says, “and so you asked him –” Sofi picks up the story: “Somehow, I asked him how he went through his voice change. Obviously, he had such a high voice. And he said he just kept singing the high notes and he was able to keep his falsetto.” “It was good advice,” August says, “but man, it was hard. I never knew when my voice would, like explode. It was like a time bomb.”

Touring the country, the siblings began to comprehend the magnitude of the Sound of Music story, and what it meant to people. “After the show, people would come up to us and would be like, ‘I met your grandmother. . . . I heard her sing in this hall fifty years ago,’” Melanie says. “That’s when we started to kind of understand that we were carrying on something.”

“We would hear people say, ‘I saw The Sound of Music when I was six years old, and it made me realize what I was going to do with my life,’” Amanda says. “And then they would thank us for something we almost had nothing to do with. That weight of importance always rested on us. We knew it wasn’t just about ourselves.”

But only recently have they hit the big time. In March, they released a new CD, Dream a Little Dream, and embarked on a twenty-four-city tour, both projects collaborations with the eclectic musical group Pink Martini. The CD features guest appearances by Wayne Newton, Jack Hanna (also a musician), Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains. And, on the Sound of Music songs The Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss (not real Austrian folk songs, as many think, but Rodgers and Hammerstein concoctions), Charmian Carr, who played Liesl in the film.

It may seem odd, but it’s nonetheless true that the von Trapp family was famous before The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened on Broadway in 1959 and was based on a 1949 book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria von Trapp. This is the same Maria played by Mary Martin on stage and Julie Andrews on screen, a postulant who was hired by Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp, a widower, as a tutor for one of his children (not a governess for all of them, as in the musical), and ended up marrying him. (That part was true.) As early as 1935, with the encouragement of and under the direction of an Austrian priest, Franz Wasner, Maria and her stepchildren formed a vocal group that performed professionally at the Salzburg Festival; in 1937 they went on a tour of Europe and even made a television appearance on the BBC.

The following year, the Nazis annexed Austria. Because the von Trapps’ former home, the city of Trieste, had become part of Italy, the family possessed Italian passports and used them to get on a train out of the country, eventually settling in the United States. (The musical’s exodus on foot over the mountains is another invention by the librettists, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.) Within the year, accompanied by Father Wasner, they made their first tour of the United States, capped off by a well-received concert in New York’s Town Hall. The New York Times observed, “There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.”

The family lived for a time in Merion, Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Vermont. But from the beginning, the Singers – eventually including the three children of Maria and the Captain – spent a good part of the year touring the country, offering audiences in Iowa or New Mexico exotic and ultimately heartwarming sights and sounds. In a typical concert, the family opened with sacred selections, perhaps a Gregorian chant and a Bach piece, then did an instrumental portion (recorders, spinet and viola da gamba), followed by madrigals. After intermission, they changed into their trademark Austrian outfits – dirndls for the girls, lederhosen for the boys – and did a set of Austrian folk songs, a demonstration of crowd-pleasing yodels and finally a selection of international folk songs.

Part of the appeal of the Trapp Family Singers – they judiciously dropped the “von” after settling in the United States – was the contrast they offered to happenings in their native country and neighboring Nazi Germany. The New York Times, reviewing their “picturesque” 1940 holiday Town Hall concert, commented that they “afforded the large audience a glimpse into an Austria, not of storm troopers, but of devout families who sing and make music at home in the evenings.” Feature reporters found they made good copy as well. One 1946 article reported, “In the hotel dining room, the Baroness Maria von Trapp, a tall, strong blue-eyed woman in radiant health, dressed like her daughters and like them, without make-up, firmly pressed our hand, and then introduced us to the Baron, a twinkling-eyed man who looked like Santa Claus with a mustache instead of a beard.”

The tour eventually expanded to as many as one hundred twenty-five performances a year, and according to William Anderson, author of The World of the Trapp Family, became “the most heavily booked attraction in concert history.” He doesn’t cite a source for that assertion, but with their annual tour, RCA Victor recordings, occasional television appearances and Maria’s best-selling memoir, there’s no doubt the von Trapps were a significant cultural institution.

However, by the arrival of the new decade of the ’50s, some of the siblings were marrying and having children and getting into professions like medicine and forestry, making it necessary for non-family ringers to don the dirndls and lederhosen on stage. There was also a sense, among some observers, that the act had worn a little thin. “No matter what they were up to, the Trapps did their work in a tentative, unbending manner – smiling nervously now and then – and the audience, to judge by the applause that followed each number, was pleased by this show of diffidence,” wrote Douglas Watt of the New Yorker, reviewing the 1951 Christmas concert. Watt wasn’t charmed. “There was so much gemütlichkeit in the air that it began to grow stuffy, and I left before they got to the carols.”

The group finally disbanded after a farewell tour, featuring In stiller Nacht [by Brahms], in the beginning of 1956. By that time the Captain and one of his daughters had died. Some of the siblings dispersed around the country and the world, but Maria continued to operate a ski lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and many of her children and their families were nearby. (The lodge is still operated by her son Johannes and his family. Maria died in 1987, and the last of her stepchildren, also named Maria, in 2014.)

A German film based on the family story was released in 1956, and eventually caught the attention of musical comedy star Mary Martin. She decided it would be a perfect vehicle – with Martin herself playing Maria, of course, and a score consisting of the Trapp family repertoire. She brought on a producer, Leland Hayward, commissioned the team of Lindsay and Crouse to write a script, and approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (with whom she’d had a spectacular success in South Pacific) to come up with a single original song. Rodgers describes his reaction in his autobiography, Musical Stages: “If they wanted to do a play using the actual music the Trapps sang, fine, but why invite a clash of styles by simply adding one new song? Why not a fresh score? When I suggested this to Leland and Mary they said they’d love to have a new score, but only if Oscar and I wrote it.”

Write it they did. The show opened on Broadway in 1959 and was a smash hit, despite some critical carping about its sentimentality. The London production the following year was an even bigger success, and even bigger than that was the Julie Andrews film. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed a whopping $126 million at the box office.

The film has never really ended its run, of course, being presented in recent years in karaoke-style sing-alongs where audience members dress as characters and even song lyrics. (A brown paper package tied up in string is a popular choice.) In December 2013, NBC presented a live television version of the musical with Carrie Underwood as Maria. Although the reviews were, as always, mixed, the production got fabulous ratings.

The consensus among the family Trapp was that the musical got the heart of the story right, though there was and is some grumbling about that escape hike, the changing of names (and sometimes gender) of some of the siblings, and, especially, the depiction of the warm, Santa Claus-like Captain as a patrician meanie.

But none of that mattered. The film catapulted the family from renown to full-blown celebrity, and there was nothing they could do about it. From time to time, the Trapp Family Singers got out the dirndls and lederhosen and put on a reunion concert. But there was no follow-up, as everyone by that time had demanding lives.

It would not be until the 1970s that the music coursing through the von Trapp DNA would again get expressed in a concerted manner. First came Werner’s daughter Elisabeth von Trapp, who strapped a guitar on her back as a teenager and ever since has traveled the country as a folk singer.

Then came her Montana nieces and nephew. The touring and performing was fun for a while, but about four years ago, with the sisters at college age, they decided, as Sofi says, “to stop singing, and go to school, and kind of pursue our own dreams.” They each enrolled in a different college, and August started attending high school in Chicago. “It was our first time being with kids our own age,” Amanda says. (The siblings were home-schooled.) Then, in 2010, they got a call from a producer from Oprah, asking if they would appear on a special Sound of Music forty-fifth anniversary show. And how could they turn down a chance to sing Edelweiss with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the surviving cast from the film?

After the show aired, there were offers from all around the world. Again, the touring started. Again, it began to wear on them. One of the last concerts on their contract came in December 2011: singing with the Oregon Symphony at Portland’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

“The symphony called up and said, ‘We’ve got the von Trapps,’” recalls Thomas Lauderdale, the founder and leader of Pink Martini, who is a lifelong Portland resident. “‘Can they be on stage with you?’ And it was, you know, I mean, I just sort of flipped out, I was so excited.”

Lauderdale, who is forty-three, has spiked white-blond hair and usually wears a bow tie, had grown up as a big fan of The Sound of Music. In fact, Pink Martini performed The Lonely Goatherd, a yodeling showcase from the musical, at the second concert it ever did. When he met the von Trapps, he found himself impressed by more than their bloodlines and their pipes. “They were paying a different kind of attention than most people are ever paying,” he said. “I think it has to do with them not having watched television as kids. There’s a certain look in people who haven’t grown up watching TV. There’s a different gaze.”

Lauderdale’s perception was on target. “No, we didn’t have a TV,” Melanie says. She’s the second oldest, at twenty-four, and, like her brother and sisters, personable, fresh-faced, modest and nice. “Our dad didn’t grow up watching it, and neither of our parents were into the whole TV thing. I mean, we watched Bill Nye the Science Guy once in a while.” Later, it emerges that none of the siblings has heard of Pee-wee Herman.

Lauderdale thought their sound was terrific, too. “The way they sing comes from the way they’ve grown up together, been in the same room together all these years,” he says. “I don’t think that exists anywhere in the world, this combination of talent, experience, family history and parents with the wisdom not to park them in front of televisions. It was an amazing thing to behold.”

Then, in April 2012, Lauderdale asked them to join Pink Martini for a symphony show in Indianapolis. It was there that the idea of making an album together began to develop. “It was kind of the second time we’d really hung out with Thomas,” Amanda says, “and he slid the sheet music for Dream a Little Dream over across the table towards me. He had no way of knowing it, but that song was my lullaby growing up.”

Lauderdale had the notion that August would strum the ukulele on the song, a Tin Pan Alley standard from the early ’30s. The only trouble was, August had never played the ukulele. “At first, it was really difficult,” he says. “But eventually you just keep at it, and your fingers mold into getting used to it.”

Dream a Little Dream, with Amanda on lead vocal, Thomas on uke and Sofi on melodica, is the title track of the disc. In Stiller Nacht is on it. The rest of the lineup emerged by inspiration and serendipity. “I asked a lot of questions,” Lauderdale says. “‘Who all do you like? Who do you listen to? Who would you love to work with?’ At the top of the list was the Chieftains.” It turns out that Paddy Moloney’s venerable Irish group once shared management with Pink Martini, and the siblings journeyed to Dublin to collaborate with them on Thunder, one of three haunting New-Agey songs composed by August on the CD. (“My hope in reality,” says the lyric, “comes flowing from my dreams.”) There’s a cover of the ABBA song Fernando, Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and carefully curated songs from China, Japan, Israel, France and Rwanda.

And how could there be a von Trapp album without including any songs from The Sound of Music? In fact, Dream a Little Dream has two, The Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss, and a guest vocalist on both is Charmian Carr, the original “sixteen going on seventeen” Liesl. Not long after making the film, Carr moved from acting to a career as a decorator, but she never stopped participating in Sound of Music events. At a 2000 singalong at the Hollywood Bowl, she met Lauderdale. While making Dream a Little Dream, he invited Carr to participate and she accepted without hesitation. Not only did Carr feel the von Trapps’ sound was “exquisite,” she says from her home in Encino, California, but she formed a quick and deep bond. “I told them they felt like my own children,” she says.

In Portland, Amanda von Trapp says that singing with Carr was one of the high points of making the record. “Here are five people in the studio who would have no connection otherwise,” she says. “It’s so distant, but so close. She represented this story that our grandparents went through. And everybody loves this story, and her role especially, being Liesl.”

The granddaughter of the brother of the person Carr played on screen pauses. “It was a little surreal,” she adds.

Ben YagodaSmithsonian Magazine

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