The Von Trapps Are Back With a New Musical Sound

The hills are alive again with a new American generation of the singing family made famous by the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical

The von Trapp family overlooking Portland, Oregon. (Susan Seubert)
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The group finally disbanded after a farewell tour, featuring “In Stiller Nacht,” in the beginning of 1956. By that time the Captain and one of his daughters had died. Some of the siblings dispersed around the country and the world, but Maria continued to operate a ski lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and many of her children and their families were nearby. (The lodge is still operated by her son Johannes and his family. Maria died in 1987, and the last of her stepchildren, also named Maria, in 2014.)

A German film based on the family story was released in 1956, and eventually caught the attention of musical comedy star Mary Martin. She decided it would be a perfect vehicle—with Martin herself playing Maria, of course, and a score consisting of the Trapp family repertoire. She brought on a producer, Leland Hayward, commissioned the team of Lindsay and Crouse to write a script, and approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (with whom she’d had a spectacular success in South Pacific) to come up with a single original song. Rodgers describes his reaction in his autobiography, Musical Stages: “If they wanted to do a play using the actual music the Trapps sang, fine, but why invite a clash of styles by simply adding one new song? Why not a fresh score? When I suggested this to Leland and Mary they said they’d love to have a new score, but only if Oscar and I wrote it.”

Write it they did. The show opened on Broadway in 1959 and was a smash hit, despite some critical carping about its sentimentality. The London production the following year was an even bigger success, and even bigger than that was the Julie Andrews film. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed a whopping $126 million at the box office.

The film has never really ended its run, of course, being presented in recent years in karaoke-style sing-
alongs where audience members dress as characters and even song lyrics. (A brown paper package wrapped up in string is a popular choice.) In December 2013, NBC presented a live television version of the musical with Carrie Underwood as Maria. Although the reviews were, as always, mixed, the production got fabulous ratings.

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The consensus among the family Trapp was that the musical got the heart of the story right, though there was and is some grumbling about that escape hike, the changing of names (and sometimes gender) of some of the siblings, and, especially, the depiction of the warm, Santa Claus-like Captain as a patrician meanie.

But none of that mattered. The film catapulted the family from renown to full-blown celebrity, and there was nothing they could do about it. From time to time, the Trapp Family Singers got out the dirndls and lederhosen and put on a reunion concert. But there was no follow-up, as everyone by that time had demanding lives.

It would not be until the 1970s that the music coursing through the von Trapp DNA would again get expressed in a concerted manner. First came Werner’s daughter Elisabeth von Trapp, who strapped a guitar on her back as a teenager, and ever since has traveled the country as a folk singer.

Then came her Montana nieces and nephew. The touring and performing was fun for a while, but about four years ago, with the sisters at college age, they decided, as Sofi says, “to stop singing, and go to school, and kind of pursue our own dreams.” They each enrolled in a different college, and August started attending high school in Chicago. “It was our first time being with kids our own age,” Amanda says. (The siblings were home-schooled.)Then, in 2010, they got a call from a producer from “Oprah,” asking if they would appear on a special Sound of Music 45th anniversary show. And how could they turn down a chance to sing “Edelweiss” with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the surviving cast from the film?

After the show aired, there were offers from all around the world. Again, the touring started. Again, it began to wear on them. One of the last concerts on their contract came in December 2011: singing with the Oregon Symphony at Portland’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

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“The symphony called up and said, ‘We’ve got the von Trapps,’” recalls Thomas Lauderdale, the founder and leader of Pink Martini, who is a lifelong Portland resident. “‘Can they be on stage with you?’ And it was, you know, I mean, I just sort of flipped out, I was so excited.”

Lauderdale, who is 43, has spiked white-blond hair and usually wears a bow tie, had grown up as a big fan of The Sound of Music. In fact, Pink Martini performed “The Lonely Goatherd,” a yodeling showcase from the musical, at the second concert it ever did. When he met the von Trapps, he found himself impressed by more than their bloodlines and their pipes. “They were paying a different kind of attention than most people are ever paying,” he said. “I think it has to do with them not having watched television as kids. There’s a certain look in people who haven’t grown up watching TV. There’s a different gaze.”

Lauderdale’s perception was on target. “No, we didn’t have a TV,” Melanie says. She’s the second oldest, at 24, and, like her brother and sisters, personable, fresh-faced, modest and nice. “Our dad didn’t grow up watching it, and neither of our parents were into the whole TV thing. I mean, we watched ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ once in a while.” Later, it emerges that none of the siblings has heard of Pee-wee Herman.

Lauderdale thought their sound was terrific, too. “The way they sing comes from the way they’ve grown up together, been in the same room together all these years,” he says. “I don’t think that exists anywhere in the world, this combination of talent, experience, family history and parents with the wisdom not to park them in front of televisions. It was an amazing thing to behold.”

Then, in April 2012, Lauderdale asked them to join Pink Martini for a symphony show in Indianapolis. It was there that the idea of making an album together began to develop. “It was kind of the second time we’d really hung out with Thomas,” Amanda says, “and he slid the sheet music for ‘Dream a Little Dream’ over across the table towards me. He had no way of knowing it, but that song was my lullaby growing up.”

Lauderdale had the notion that August would strum the ukulele on the song, a Tin Pan Alley standard from the early ’30s. The only trouble was, August had never played the ukulele. “At first, it was really difficult,” he says. “But eventually you just keep at it, and your fingers mold into getting used to it.”

“Dream a Little Dream,” with Amanda on lead vocal, Thomas on uke and Sofi on melodica, is the title track of the disc. “In Stiller Nacht” is on it. The rest of the lineup emerged by inspiration and serendipity. “I asked a lot of questions,” Lauderdale says. “‘Who all do you like? Who do you listen to? Who would you love to work with?’ At the top of the list was the Chieftains.” It turns out that Paddy Moloney’s venerable Irish group once shared management with Pink Martini, and the siblings journeyed to Dublin to collaborate with them on “Thunder,” one of three haunting New-Agey songs composed by August on the CD. (“My hope in reality,” says the lyric, “comes flowing from my dreams.”) There’s a cover of the Abba song “Fernando,” “Hushabye Mountain,” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and carefully curated songs from China, Japan, Israel, France and Rwanda.

And how could there be a von Trapp album without including any songs from The Sound of Music? In fact, Dream a Little Dream has two, “The Lonely Goatherd” and “Edelweiss,” and a guest vocalist on both is Charmian Carr, the original “sixteen going on seventeen” Liesl. Not long after making the film, Carr moved from acting to a career as a decorator, but she never stopped participating in Sound of Music events. At a 2000 singalong at the Hollywood Bowl, she met Lauderdale. While making Dream a Little Dream, he invited Carr to participate and she accepted without hesitation. Not only did Carr feel the von Trapps’ sound was “exquisite,” she says from her home in Encino, California, but she formed a quick and deep bond. “I told them they felt like my own children,” she says.

In Portland, Amanda von Trapp says that singing with Carr was one of the high points of making the record. “Here are five people in the studio who would have no connection otherwise,” she says. “It’s so distant, but so close. She represented this story that our grandparents went through. And everybody loves this story, and her role especially, being Liesl.”

The granddaughter of the brother of the person Carr played on screen pauses. “It was a little surreal,” she adds.

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