March 2, 1965— The Sound of Music premiered in New York, its first step toward winning five Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and becoming the highest-grossing entrant in perhaps the best-loved Hollywood genre since sound came to motion pictures: the musical. Nobody could foresee that a mere three years later, the same popular star and respected director primarily responsible for the film would be involved in another musical that flopped so disastrously that it foretold the decline of the entire form.
Julie Andrews’ appearance at the Academy Awards eight days ago was intended to remind a worldwide audience not just of one film’s 50th anniversary, but of the way that cinema in general has become a marker in our lives—whether one saw the movie originally on the big screen, in one of the newer video formats, or—as has been occurring with greater frequency in recent years—as a movie that has become a Christmas mainstay on TV, in much the same way that It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story has become.
But, for me anyway, what the beloved star’s appearance did was to reveal the distance has grown between not only the movie musical of yesterday vs. the one of today, but alsothe even greater distance that has grown between the Best Picture of the mid-Sixties and the one crowned by Hollywood last week.
Onstage at the same Oscar ceremony as Ms. Andrews was John Travolta. Although the actor has become a figure of some amusement these last few years (in no small part because of his Scientology connections, a hairstyle suspiciously resembling a toupee, and the mangling of Idina Menzel’s name on the show a year ago), he remains, in his way, a crucial figure in the industry’s development, a symbol of how the movie musical morphed into something far different from what Ms. Andrews and her Sound of Music director, Robert Wise, could have imagined.
When the makers of The Sound of Music took home their Oscar gold, it was the third time in five years that Best Picture honors had gone to a musical—and a big-budget one, at that. (The prior winners had been West Side Story, in 1961, and My Fair Lady in 1964.) But already, in 1964, Richard Lester had paved the way for an entirely different form of cinematic music-making with his film about The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night.
The Fab Four, instead of breaking into song on a moment’s notice anywhere, did so in their debut film in a more realistic setting: as part of one of their concerts. Onscreen as well as on vinyl, they were upending convention. They were young and filled with irreverence toward The Establishment—including the musical one.
Nobody represented the Musical Establishment of the mid-Sixties the way that Richard Rodgers, the “organization man of American musical theater” (critic David Hadju’s words), did. Even with the death of his second principal collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II (Lorenz Hart had been the first), at the start of the decade, he continued to appear unstoppable—with the soundtracks of his Broadway shows and their film adaptations landing on the lists of the bestselling music LPs. For the film version of The Sound of Music, he contributed two new songs, “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good.”
Almost as extraordinary a businessman as music man, Rodgers saw this last collaboration of his with Hammerstein reap box-office gold as well, to the point that some industry wits called the movie The Sound of Money. Others, more cynical, gagged on the sentiment celebrated unapologetically here—including no less than the film’s co-star, Christopher Plummer, who nicknamed it “The Sound of Mucus.” Actor Doug McClure was equally vehement about its gooeyness: “Watching The Sound of Music is like being beaten to death by a Hallmark card.”
The same could not be said for Saturday Night Fever. Its original R-rated version not only employed the rough language of a still-unformed Brooklyn youth and his friends, but also shots of a stripper and a rape—hardly the type of scenes involving a young governess aspiring to become a nun.
More to the point, Saturday Night Fever represented a break from The Sound of Music and its ilk by returning the movie musical to its origins, then thrusting it forward into new territory. Unlike The Sound of Music and other libretto-centric musicals, its strong suit was dance, which lent itself to movement—in that sense, if no other, a return to the work of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
At the same time, the soundtrack to the movie had become just as important as the movie. Each song (in this case, largely by the Bee Gees) became a phenomenon by itself.
Lastly, Saturday Night Fever, with a low budget, came out of nowhere, spawning a whole new genre of dance/soundtrack musicals, including another Travolta film, Urban Cowboy (1980), Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Dirty Dancing (1987).
The lessons of those films—stay small and stay hungry—were lost on Hollywood in the Sixties. The Sound of Music had rescued its studio, Twentieth Century Fox, from the financial ruin caused just a couple of years earlier by Cleopatra. But, by repeating the formula used by its Oscar winner—on-location shooting, spare-no-expense budgets, and stories missing the originality and zest of Kelly’s classic 1950s musicals like Singing in the Rain—it set itself up for failure repeatedly.
One after another traditional musical tanked for the studio--Doctor Doolittle and Hello, Dolly!--and other studios fared little better. The most shocking failure may have involved Star!, in which Andrews, directed by Wise, tackled the role of actress Gertrude Lawrence. It was nearly as long as The Sound of Music, and even outdid My Fair Lady in the size of its wardrobe department—125 costume changes for Ms. Andrews, a record for an actress in one film at the time.
While creating a host of imitators, then, The Sound of Music ensured that the traditional music would lie dormant for decades, until Chicago partly revived the form a decade ago, albeit in radically reduced number.
Moreover, its appeal to family audiences would increasingly find no counterpart in mainstream Hollywood—at least, in anything other than animated films. New, edgier filmmakers would find footholds in Tinseltown and vote for fare with less broad-based appeal. The result: the triumph on Oscar night of The Birdman, a film with nowhere near the grosses that The Sound of Music had enjoyed. In fact, none of the Best Picture nominees, with the exception of American Sniper, could be termed a blockbuster--and, in its consistently downbeat mood, that was nothing like the family-friendly, hope-as-high-as-the-Alps mood of Julie Andrews' triumph 50 years before.