Why ‘The Sound of Music’ matters, even after 50+ years

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

Sunday night I did something I don’t often do these days. I watched a movie — with commercials — on “regular” TV. It happened to be “The Sound of Music,” one of my all-time favorites, which clocked in at four hours on ABC.

I realize I could have saved myself some time if I had watched the movie on a streaming network, like Disney+. But I didn’t really want to make it go any faster. There were too many memories to savor.

Courtesy of Soundofmusic.com

I first saw “The Sound of Music” not long after it opened in 1965 at Radio City Music Hall. I was 9 or 10. It may have been part of Radio City’s annual “Christmas Spectacular,” featuring the Rockettes, which my parents faithfully took me to each December as a kid. It was our holiday tradition.

We’d ride the train from Long Island into “the city” to see the Rockettes perform, which was then followed by a family-friendly movie on the venue’s big screen. If I lobbied hard enough, we’d squeeze in a stop to a Horn & Hardart automat for a quick bite before or after the show. 

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I so looked forward to our Radio City “holidate,” hoping and even praying that my annual winter cold and cough would hold off until January so I wouldn’t be sick and miss out.

Fun little fact about the Rockettes: They first got their start in St. Louis in 1925 and were known as the Missouri Rockets.

In any case, it may have been that I saw “The Sound of Music” at Radio City at another time of the year. Like I said, I don’t recall exactly when, but I sure do remember how much I adored the film and the romantic story it tells, based on real-life, about widowed naval officer Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and Catholic postulate Maria (Julie Andrews) who becomes governess to his seven children. My parents bought me the soundtrack, which I would play on our “hi-fi” over and over so I could memorize all the words to “My Favorite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi.” 

Likely tired of me flitting around the house pretending to be the eldest von Trapp daughter Liesel, I recall my parents sitting me down to discuss some of the themes in the film in language I would understand: the importance of family, of faith, of conviction, of courage, of hope, of perseverance. They encouraged me to dig deeper than just longing to be Liesel. But they didn’t mention, at least not specifically, the Nazi invasion into Austria, where the film is set, and how the rise of Hitler and Nazism led to the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

Then again, I was only 9 or 10 at the time.

When the movie finally arrived on television in 1976, I was in college and likely too busy studying (wink, wink) to pay much attention. But I do recall what a different experience it was watching “The Sound of Music” in my 20s. No longer did I have any affection for Liesel’s love interest, Hitler Youth whistle blower Rolfe, and found myself annoyed at Liesel for having anything to do with him in the first place. I also realized that lurking in the background of the film was darkness in the form of the Third Reich, and the evil it unleashed.

Sure, I still loved the songs and the involving story and rooted for Maria and the von Trapps, but I also couldn’t help but think how they were not only lucky for the love they all shared, but that they made it to safety when so many Jews did not.

Years later, when I met my husband who is not Jewish, we decided to forge some holiday traditions of our own. He came to the marriage with two young children, and we added a third. As a family, we’d watch “The Sound of Music” together, usually around Christmastime. We’d sing the songs, and I would reprise my Liesel moves to make them all laugh. 

We’d discuss, too, some of the themes in the film in language they could understand: the importance of family, of faith, of conviction, of courage, of hope, of perseverance. And when they were mature enough, we’d talk about how the film also depicts darkness. It was our first step in explaining to them about the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. 

“The Sound of Music,” about a musical Catholic family escaping to freedom, is not now, nor will it ever be thought of as a “Holocaust film,” but its timeless themes teach valuable lessons, and help us, Jews and non-Jews alike, to never forget what can happen when evil goes unchecked. Given the increase in antisemitism and white nationalism, the film is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it was released 57 years ago.

When I texted my stepson that I was watching the movie Sunday night, he responded: “It’s a time commitment, but it’s worth the wait to watch Christopher Plummer own Rolfe’s Hitler Youth tuchus.” 

Now that’s what I call proud parenting.