Everyone can identify the beloved show tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 classic, The Sound of Music, but few may know the role that Philadelphia played in the real-life von Trapp family’s journey.
Germantown and Merion are the first places the family depicted in that Broadway show and Hollywood musical lived after fleeing Austria and the Nazis in 1938. But the von Trapps suffered the “penance” of wearing their traditional Austrian “heavy woolen costumes” for only three sticky Philadelphia summers, as show star and family matriarch Maria explained in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the 1949 book that was the basis for The Sound of Music. The next leg of their journey brought them somewhere decidedly cooler: the Alps-like Green Mountains of Vermont.
No wonder that Maria’s granddaughter, Elisabeth, scheduled her concert at Philly’s Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for fall — specifically, this Saturday, Oct. 12.
All the von Trapps depicted in the 1965 movie, including Elisabeth’s famous grandmother, Maria, and her father, Werner (called Kurt in the movie), are long gone. Elisabeth, 64, is currently the only Trapp family singer. She spoke on the phone from her home in Waitsfield, Vt., last week.
Did your grandmother or father ever talk to you about their time in Greater Philly?
I know that there was a bishop in Philadelphia who vouched for them when they were at Ellis Island. And that there were many church people who welcomed and helped them when they were first here, making my performing at the cathedral there a beautiful circle.
There was also a lawyer named Henry Drinker who hosted them in Merion. He was a big classical music fan who had a solarium in his house where he held concerts. Performing there helped them put a program together for American audiences. So my family is greatly indebted to Philadelphia!
I try to replicate the spectacular and mesmerizing musical experiences I had as a child visiting churches and cathedrals in Austria with my [maternal] grandmother — but I do it with guitar and voice and accompanied by the wonderful guitarist Paul Asbell and the cathedral’s children’s choir. I’ll be doing hymns and other songs from my album of sacred music, Love Never Ends, which is so appropriate to this setting. I’ll also be sprinkling a little Rodgers and Hammerstein in. But people shouldn’t expect a Sound of Music revue. That’s not what I do.
A lot of us sang when we were growing up, but then we went on to other things. For many years I had a company where I made Austrian dresses. But in ’96 my husband [lawyer-turned-manager Ed Hall] and I decided it was time for a change. I remember telling my father, very excitedly, about my first tour — 100 concerts that winter and spring. And he looked at me and said, “You poor thing.” But music is something I need to do to feel alive. It lifts my spirit and I believe it does that for the audience, too.
In some ways, yes. As an adult he was a very humble man, modest and soft-spoken. But as a child he was mischievous. You know, it’s so beautiful in the musical that he dances the Ländler [a traditional folk dance] with Maria because my father really did dance that dance as part of the Trapp Family Singers show.
Multiple times. The first time I was only about 5, and when the play was over, my grandmother stood up to speak and I was so nervous for her. I had never seen the family on stage — I stayed home with my mother — so I had no idea what a pro she was. Of course, she was fabulous and everyone clapped for a long time. ... I also played Maria in a production at a small theater in Vermont once. ... I remember this surreal moment when I was rehearsing the scene where Maria is teaching Kurt the Ländler with the little boy who was playing him and I said, “Do you know that you are my father?”
I had a very beautiful, personal experience playing with Mary Martin [for a Life magazine spread]. I love what Julie Andrews did — she was just exquisite. But, of course, the best Maria was the real one.
She was a very passionate, vibrant human being, who struggled as a child. She saw how people lose hope, and decided that she was going to survive. Sometimes she held people to higher standards than they thought they could achieve — it’s true. What do people want? Someone who has no character and no strength and no personality?
When she was older and I got to know her better, I was often surprised by how she would react, what she would say and how she viewed things. She was unpredictable in a way that Rodgers and Hammerstein captured in the song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
I could become very cynical about it. I try instead to focus on people’s enthusiasm and interest and curiosity about this story of a family that survived and stuck together. It’s iconic and powerful. ... What I try to do in my concerts is tell people who they really were. We see a movie and we think, that’s it. But real life is actually even more powerful.