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'Sound of Music' in Salzburg homecoming

October 20, 2011

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Actress Wietske van Tongeren (C), acting as Maria Rainer, performs on stage with children during a dress rehearsal for the Austrian musical “The Sound of Music” in Salzburg October 19, 2011. The play directed by Andreas Gergen and Christian Struppeck and conducted by Peter Ewaldt and Stefan Mueller will premiere on October 23. - Reuters Photo

SALZBURG: “The Sound of Music,” the musical made world famous by the 1965 film starring Julie Andrews, has never been performed in the picture-postcard Austrian city of Salzburg where it is set.

But on Sunday this will change as the Salzburg State Theatre premieres a sell-out German-language version of the feel-good Rodgers and Hammerstein story of the singing-and-dancing von Trapp family on the eve of World War II.

The theatre's musical director Carl Philip von Maldeghem told AFP that he first became aware of the musical's huge popularity outside Austria and his native Germany as an exchange student in the United States.

“I was in Iowa, in the Midwest,” he said. “The family watched 'The Sound of Music' every Christmas, and we all enjoyed it very much.

“I was 17, so now here we are, 25 years later, and I am bringing the musical home.”The Oscar-winning movie, one of the most successful of all time, is already big business for Salzburg, and has been for years, with the city's tourist board saying it helps attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

Some 300,000 visit the locations where Andrews, Christopher Plummer and their co-stars were filmed, 60 per cent from the United States and Britain, 20 per cent from India and China, and 10 per cent each from Australia and elsewhere in Asia.

“We have now come across the fact that even more tourists visit because of the 'Sound of Music' than because of Mozart” – the city's other main tourist draw, whose birthplace people can see – von Maldeghem said.

But in the German-speaking world, ask someone if they have heard of the musical or the movie, or sing a few lines of “Edelweiss” or “Climb Ev'ry Mountain”, and it will most likely draw blank looks.

Part of why this is, or at least was in the 1960s and '70s when memories of World War II were fresher, lies in the musical's historical backdrop, with the von Trapp family famously escaping from the Nazis at the end over the Alps.

But a bigger reason is that the movie, despite being one of the biggest box office hits ever, was never really to German, Austrian or Swiss-German tastes.

“They couldn't really get on with the Hollywood version. If you are not from around here it was all so beautiful and romantic and everything, but for locals it was just kitschy,” Andrea Heitzer from Salzburg's tourism board told AFP.

“People didn't even realise how big it was abroad. It was always funny being in the United States and saying you were from Salzburg. 'Ah, the Sound of Music,' they would say.”

Moreover, there was a 1956 German film including the von Trapps' escape from the Nazis that predated the US version and which was very popular, Stefan Herzl, who runs the oldest of Salzburg's several “Sound of Music” tours, told AFP.

“Maybe in the 1960s the older generation might have had a problem with it, but not the current one,” said Herzl, whose company Panorama Tours provided the buses and limousines for Andrews, her co-stars and the crew of director Robert Wise.

Von Maldeghem, who said that 300 local children auditioned for parts in his production, agreed.

“I think it is a generational thing,” he said. “The younger generation see it as a piece of Salzburg and see it as a living piece of history ... The main story is a family story and a story of ideals.”

Tickets for the new musical, aimed at German-speakers but with English subtitles for any visitors, have sold out for this year and are on sale already for 2012, he said.

The website is http://www.salzburger-landestheater.at/