What Can Explain the Enduring Appeal of ‘The Sound of Music’?

Charmian Carr died on September 17 at her home in California. She was seventy-three years old and had been suffering from dementia. Carr was best known for her role as the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, in the classic musical, The Sound of Music. She charmed the world as the strong-willed girl who sang about being “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (even though she was 21 at the time) as she danced around a gazebo in a rainstorm with her beau, Rolf.

Carr didn’t do much acting other than The Sound of Music; her only other film was Evening Primrose, in 1966. After fulfilling the terms of her studio contract, she left Hollywood to raise her family and start an interior design business. Her representative said that leaving Hollywood “was a decision she never regretted.” Her design company attracted famous clients such as Michael Jackson (she worked on his over-the-top Neverland Ranch) as well as a few of her former co-stars from The Sound of Music. She also published two books about her time filming The Sound of Music and the many fan letters she received.

Although Carr had a short Hollywood career, my social media feeds were still filled with articles about her death; many people mourned her passing—and for good reason. She was a wonderful actress in The Sound of Music—able to capture the spirit of a stubborn but sweet teenage girl, even though she was much older during the filming. But there was more to her appeal than her charm as an actress; it was the spellbinding lure of The Sound of Music, which became a cult classic and remains one today. I was born long after The Sound of Music premiered, but I still know every word of every song in the movie, as do many of my millennial peers.

In a sense, people aren’t just mourning the death of Carr; they are mourning the death of the kind of musical that The Sound of Music was. Liesl and the other Von Trapp siblings sang their way into the hearts of their audience and became more than just characters on a screen, something that many musicals today, despite their celebrity performers and hip music, don’t seem to be able to accomplish. Yes, Hamilton has broken attendance records and will probably be sold out for years, but people don’t have the same connection to Alexander Hamilton as they do to the Von Trapp family and Maria. And it’s not just The Sound of Music; even though a classic like My Fair Lady (my personal favorite) doesn’t have the same heart-warming, family feeling as The Sound of Music, its wittiness and incredible score haven’t been upstaged by any of the many musicals that have followed it.

Unlike today’s musicals, which often elevate spectacle over meaning, classic musicals such as The Sound of Music celebrate virtues such as loyalty and family. In The Sound of Music, Captain Von Trapp would have had a much easier life if he had turned against all his values and joined the Nazi party, but he was loyal and patriotic to his country; he let his conscience and morals guide him, even though it meant more hardship for him and his family. The women of classic musicals also stuck with their values even while going against the grain of traditional norms for women. Maria left her life at the convent to follow her heart; Liesl was as strong-willed and as patriotic as her father, rejecting Rolf when he joined the Nazis; and Eliza from My Fair Lady remains one of the feistiest and stubborn ladies of the stage. Instead of remaining a simple flower girl or becoming a traditional wife, she found a way to better herself by becoming independent and self-sufficient. She even says she won’t marry Freddy until she’s able to support him financially.

There are probably many more reasons why people still love classic musicals like these and like Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, or The King and I, not least the nostalgia they encourage. But most fans of classic musicals will tell you that they also feel more of a connection with the characters than they do with modern musical stars such as Alexander Hamilton or Elphaba from Wicked. The classics have remained crowd favorites for decades for a reason. When the hype from Hamilton dies down, it may not prove to have the staying power of The Sound of Music.

Charmian Carr will be greatly missed by both her family and her on-screen community; her costars from The Sound of Music have evidently stayed in touch with each other all these years. As Carr’s representative said, she was “a true talent as well as a kind, gentle person, she’ll be greatly missed but forever remain in our hearts.” RIP Charmian Carr, and RIP Liesl.

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