Maria Von Trapp | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Maria Von Trapp 

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"Maria, Maria, I played one of your daughters in my high school production," gushes a young girl, her hand thrusting forward a well-thumbed Stagebill. The recipient of her enthusiasm is a gentle, plump elderly woman in a peasant frock. She looks over the Liz Phair look-alike from Palatine. "Ja, zo you did, my child," she answers, obliging with an autograph.

The crowd is thinning out in Arie Crown Theatre after the opening-night performance of The Sound of Music, but down near the front row a gaggle of teenagers and their fortysomething moms are gawking at Maria von Trapp. Next in line is a polite Japanese girl. "The Japanese love the musical. After the movie came out, they started coming to Salzburg very often." "Isn't that right?" von Trapp asks sweetly. The girl bows, seemingly delighted.

Earlier in the evening, at a dinner hosted by Austrian Airlines, von Trapp had serenaded the guests with "Edelweiss" and a few other ditties identified with her celebrated family. Putting the accordion down in her lap, she reminisced about Rodgers and Hammerstein's last musical. "I think Mr. Hammerstein and Mr. Rodgers picked our story because they wanted to show a large, happy family that acted with conviction. They also wanted to make money, of course. And they did." She let out a hearty laugh.

Maria von Trapp's stepmother, the real Maria, passed away in 1987. She's the one so memorably portrayed by Mary Martin in the 1959 Broadway production of The Sound of Music and later by Julie Andrews in the 1965 hit movie; she's the one still adored by the public. Maria, the third daughter whose name is changed to Brigitta by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is sort of a successor--helping to promote the legend of the wholesome icon.

"My father is portrayed wrong. He was a lovely man, nothing like the strict disciplinarian in the musical. He played the guitar and mandolin and taught us how to sing. He wasn't even Austrian. When the Nazis wanted him to join the navy, he begged off. My family left Salzburg out of conviction; we did not have to escape. But playwrights like to fabricate, they like to make things more exciting than they were. My mother was like the Maria in the musical, more or less. She was a postulant but her headaches kept her from becoming a nun. Then she took the job of our nanny.

"I was in New Guinea working as a missionary when the musical came out," she explains, while waiting a bit impatiently backstage for Marie Osmond, the star of the latest revival, which will soon move to Broadway. "My brothers and sisters told me that Mary Martin stayed at our house in Vermont learning Austrian customs and dances from Mother. Julie Andrews never showed up. The huge success of the movie made us famous. People drove all the way to Vermont just to pass by our house. We made lots of recordings. Then our contracts ended. But we still hope to put The Best of the Trapp Family on CD soon."

The door to Osmond's dressing room opens. Her brother Donny (who's in town starring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) is inside, along with a small band of raucous well-wishers. The door shuts, to the dismay of the autograph hounds. "She is very good. And the children too," von Trapp says. "But the costumes are not authentic, not at all like the dirndl I'm wearing. The Austrians don't care much for The Sound of Music. They say everything is wrong. The mountain is wrong. The house is wrong. The music is too sweet." But American and Japanese tourists flock to Salzburg to see the sights where the film was shot. Next to von Trapp, a young Austrian tourism official nods. "I don't think the movie did well at all in Europe," the official says. "I only learned about the Sound of Music tour very recently."

"Ja, it made Stefan's family very wealthy," von Trapp nods in the direction of a well-dressed, ruddy-faced man whose father started the tour. It's Salzburg's second most popular attraction--next to the tour of the haunts of its number-one native son, Mozart. After the movie was released, says von Trapp, "Americans wanted to stream in. They wanted to take pictures. It's the same in the States. People want to take pictures of me with their children. I go to as many school performances as I can. And the theater in Stowe, where my family lived, puts on the musical every summer. After my mother's death, I came back from New Guinea to become the family's representative. Now, I think I'm also Austria's unofficial ambassador. We have always kept in contact with Salzburg. We sent a lot of stuff to the city after the war. Next month, I am invited back for the 60th anniversary of my high school. The Austrians want to hear my family's story, the whole, true story."

The door opens again. A publicist guides Marie Osmond to von Trapp. "Did you enjoy the show, Maria? Was it OK? Did I seem real?" Osmond inquires perkily. They embrace. "My dear, you were quite convincing, you have such a nice voice," von Trapp comforts her. "Maria, we visited Austria last year," says Osmond's husband solicitously. "We were in a town where my grandfather was from. There were cobblestone streets. I think it's called Baden-something."

"Oh, really?" says von Trapp. "Well, you and Marie must come to Salzburg. There are beautiful mountains and lakes. Take the Sound of Music tour. It's very worthwhile to take. You know, the hills there are alive with..."

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