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Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill

THE SOUND OF MUSIC and its Churchillian echo.

By Barry Singer

Recently, I attended a perfectly delightful performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s relentlessly delightful musical, The Sound of Musicat the remote, yet deservedly esteemed, Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, with my family.  Early on, like a nightingale learning to pray, I found myself assailed by thoughts of Winston Churchill.

No, wait, hear me out.

For all its timeless melodies, The Sound of Music is underscored and ultimately anchored by the foreboding imminence of Nazi domination; Vienna on the brink of Anschluss, and after. It’s an odd sensation. Deep down beneath all that effervescent uplift, The Sound of Music is scary. The mood captured by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse in their easily overlooked libretto is ominous. The clock is ticking. One can almost imagine the sound of Churchill’s voice on a radio in a far off room of the Von Trapp villa, intoning his warnings about Hitler.

Well, at least I could. (I am, admittedly, not you’re average guy on this subject.) Still, what I was struck by, sitting in the audience at Paper Mill, was the inescapable echo in The Sound of Music of Winston Churchill’s “Wilderness Years.”

The lone voice in the wilderness in this case is that of Baron Von Trapp. Even more insistent than Maria’s sunniness is the Baron’s certainty that Hitler will do his worst. Churchill’s sure sense of Hitler is given voice by the Baron; two truth tellers in very different narratives with the same terrible arc.

I can find no evidence to suggest that Winston Churchill and Rodgers or Hammerstein ever met. The only confirmable line I can draw between any of them would be the Emmy Award-winning score Richard Rodgers composed for a 1960 Churchill documentary entitled The Valiant Years that ran on ABC in twenty-seven 30-minute episodes, featuring Richard Burton reading aloud extracts from Churchill’s War Memoirs.

Winston Churchill did love musical theater. His passion, however, lay with Gilbert  and Sullivan, not R&H. Churchill could sing most of the patter songs from G&S’s Savoy Operas from memory. He’d attended the opening night of RuddYgore; or, The Witch’s Curse with his parents at the Savoy Theatre on January 22, 1887, when he was 12, and remained something of a fixture at the theater throughout his life.

I doubt that Churchill prized musicals for their dramatic profundity. Fortunately, Rodgers and Hammerstein did. The most pointed and poignantly dangerous character in The Sound of Music is Max Detweiler, the ingratiating, enterprising talent manager who puts the Von Trapp family onstage for the first time. An epigram spouting, elegant extra man at the Von Trapp table, “Max” could have been a weekend houseguest at Chartwell. He is almost impossible to dislike (as Max himself points out). He is also the voice of appeasement, the embodiment for Baron Von Trapp of much that Neville Chamberlain represented to Churchill. “What’s going to happen is going to happen,” Max maintains, explaining his personal survival philosophy to the Baron. “Just be sure it doesn’t happen to you.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein, bless them, even threw in a song that frolics around the cynical bankruptcy of this point of view, sung by Max and his distaff appeasing opposite number in the show, Elsa Schraeder, who nearly becomes the Baron’s second wife.

No there’s no way to stop it,” these two charmers sing, “No there’s no way to stop it/No you can’t stop it even if you try/So I’m not going to worry/No I’m not going to worry/Every time I see another day go by/… Let them think you’re on their side, be non-committal.”

“I will not bow my head to the men I despise,” insists the Baron.

You won’t have to bow your head,” the two croon back, “just stoop a little.”

The Sound of Music opened on November 16, 1959 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Churchill was, in fact, in New York in May of that year for what would essentially prove to be his last visit to the United States. By November, though, he was home in London, celebrating his 85th Birthday on November 30. Churchill also was in London on May 18, 1961 when The Sound of Music opened in the West End at The Palace Theatre, and might conceivably have seen the show, though his health was beginning to wane. Certainly he had plenty of opportunity; The Sound of Music was embraced by British audiences to an extent that outdistanced even its Broadway reception, running for 2,386 performances, nearly a thousand more than in New York. Something about The Sound of Music spoke to the English in an especially penetrating way. One can only guess why.

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