CN: Discussion of Nazis, Anti-Semitism
When I was a child, I obsessed over pop culture and specific movies. Some were movie musicals (most notably the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan, which I watched daily for at least two summers), but The Sound of Music never entered my field of vision until my proper musical education began. By then, I was a teenager, and Sound of Music was just something you became familiar with. Your teacher would put it on when there was an emergency substitute. (Admittedly: I've done this as a teacher before.) I didn't care about it. I knew enough of the film and the score to be amused at age 18 when I saw Ewan McGregor belt out the famous opening line during Moulin Rouge.
Suffice to say, I didn't see the entire thing properly in one sitting until I was maybe in my 20s and I didn't realize how much gravity it pulled until just this spring.
For an end-of-year goodie, I was able to bring some of my students to see a touring production of The Sound of Music at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. It helped to reinforce the idea that watching the movie in class (post concert days, of course) was a good use of our time.
As it turned out, this past school year, it was a frighteningly good use of our classroom time.
CN: As is apparently the case in most live productions of the musical, there is Nazi imagery displayed in the background during this scene.
Let's cut to the chase: this is a film, a musical, a story about escaping fascism through music education. About not giving in to threats. About standing up for what is right and protecting your family.
While folks like Jello Biafra consider themselves to be anti-fascist, Julie Andrews has them all beat.
During my 80s & 90s youth, the Nazis had been caricatured into a cartooish enemy. They were the bad dudes whose got their faces melted off by Indiana Jones. People of my generation and my parents' generation, the Baby Boomers, have largely not been threatened by actual Nazis. Pop culture has treated the sort of happenings depicted in films like American History X or Green Room as isolated incidents. Even as recently as Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, we see beloved actor Christoph Waltz as a bad guy and Hitler as an almost a hilarious Disney Nazi villain, yelling "Nein! Nein! Nein" and banging on a table. As a culture, we act as though the story of World War II is simple and complete: the Good Guys win, the Bad Guys lose, and Freedom is available for all forever.
But in 2017, there are bad guys not acting as though they've lost. Reported anti-Semitic activity is up. Three days before we saw the show, the high school we feed to was the site of anti-Semitic graffiti. (And another high school a few miles down the road from that was also targeted, just days before.)
While watching the film in class, I explained to students how it was indeed jarring to hear young Rolf give the Nazi salute and shout "Heil Hitler!" in the midst of a family rollicking through the mountains and singing. And it is jarring. When we saw the show in West Palm Beach, an area that has been referred to as "more Jewish than New York City", the show's Rolf did not mention Hitler. During the festival scene, however, bright red Nazi symbol flags unfurled from the ceiling. Every person in that audience, a near 2,200-seat theatre, packed to the gills, recoiled for a moment. Seeing the actor who portrayed Captain von Trapp, here depicted as a patriot representing a real man who resisted the occupation and terror that Nazi Germany brought to his homeland, sing "Edelweiss" and stare at the blazing red Nazi flags behind him was an emotionally devastating experience.
In real life, the von Trapp family may not have climbed any mountains, rather taking a train to Italy, but they fled the Nazis in 1938. They landed in the United States as refugees. Yes, refugees, fleeing from their war-torn home, never to return.
When she portrayed Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews told the world that a spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down. In portraying Maria von Trapp, Julie Andrews indeed gave us loads of saccharine along with some historical medicine. The Sound of Music, even more so in the theatre version, which features a song by the Baroness & the impresario telling Captain von Trapp that he has absolutely nothing to worry about as Nazi Germany encroached upon Austria (when in truth he had a great deal to worry about), recalls to us the slow creep of fascism. It tells the story of a refugee family, who were among the lucky to escape from Europe during World War II. At the end of the year, 8th grade language arts classes also tend to cover the Diary of Anne Frank, so much so that I overheard an eighth grader say to a friend, "So yeah, I basically told my friend that we've been talking about the Holocaust in school non-stop."
But it needs to be talked about. It needs to be brought up now, more than ever. Through the lens of history, students can clearly see that Nazis were on the wrong side of history. In the present, however, it becomes much harder to see events in the same context that the future will judge us for. As we discuss the fate of refugees and immigrants of various religious faiths, the tale that unfolds in The Sound of Music becomes all that more pertinent. Since the end of World War II, there has been a general stability among most of the nations of the world, for better or worse, that only started to unravel with the Arab Spring in 2011. Our news media predicts doom & gloom, but our students need to be reminded that there are ways to fight & resist institutionalized bigotry & hatred. And you can still do that while learning solfege.