Five academy awards, an acclaimed Broadway production featuring the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and a tale that has become one of the hallmarks of Hollywood and theater, at the heart of The Sound of Music lies a real story.
Photo by Sarah Squires
Mackaylee Kohner, pictured above, checked out a photo of the real von Trapp family Thursday. She will play a school girl in the upcoming HCO production.
The musical is well loved and known across the country and beyond, and the annual Home and Community Options (HCO) play will bring it to the Page Theater stage at Saint Mary’s University soon. But before the local talent makes it shine, the cast and crew were in for a treat, with one area man with ties to the real von Trapps, and the real story behind the play, sharing his experiences.
Richard Lettner of the Trempealeau area met and worked with the von Trapp family long before the movie and Broadway production made them famous. It was the summer of 1951, and he was ready for adventure. After spotting an ad in a Sunday shopper at his church for a music camp, Lettner hit the road, hitchhiking all the way to Vermont.
“Hitchhiking then was a piece of cake,” remembers Lettner, who said the longest he waited for a ride was about 20 minutes in West Salem. “I walked into the camp and said ‘Here I am, I’m here to help,’” he said. He was taken to his barracks, and after he got settled he was led to the kitchen, where he found a ring of people sitting around a huge pile of potatoes. “They handed me a knife and said ‘Go to work.’”
Lettner said he wasn’t really sure why he ventured out to the camp. He’s not musical, although he likes music. “It wasn’t because I was going to go over there and show them how good I could sing,” he laughed.
During the ten days he spent working at the camp, Lettner made a lot of lasting friendships, including with Maria and the von Trapps themselves. At night, workers and sometimes a von Trapp daughter would raid the kitchen, and they’d have weenie roasts or brown marshmallows, and, of course, sing.
“That was the nicest ten days, I think, of my life,” said Lettner. Some of the friendships he made there lasted: a friend from Cuba who spent Thanksgiving with his family on the farm; Laurie von Trapp, who still writes letters once in awhile.
Lettner shared some of his experiences with the HCO production cast and crew, along with pictures and cards and other von Trapp memorabilia. He also shared what he knew of the real von Trapp family, a story that, when retold in Hollywood, became more dramatic and romantic and strayed a bit from the truth.
“The story is not The Sound of Music,” he said. The von Trapp family didn’t have to flee Austria, and the children were already pretty musical by the time Maria came from the convent, sent as a tutor for one of the children, rather than a caretaker for all.
“Those kids knew music before Maria got there,” he said. “Maybe they even taught her a little.” And, Captain Georg von Trapp wasn’t much of a singer, himself. “I don’t think he could sing Edelweiss if he tried,” said Lettner.
Lettner reminisced about the real Maria, who wrote several books about the family’s experiences, traveling and singing and entertaining for decades. “Maria was one strong-willed person,” he said.
Maria, who was present during the filming of the movie, objected to some of the differences between the story on film and the story in real life and asked for changes. “I don’t know how they politely said ‘We’re not going to,’” recalled Lettner. “The movie people have to make what they think they can sell.”
When asked whether Maria was a consultant to the filming, Lettner laughed. “If she were a consultant to the movie, it wouldn’t be The Sound of Music,” he said. It would have been more realistic, perhaps, but certainly less memorable.
The eldest daughter, (called “Liesl” in the play), did have a boyfriend who was joining the Nazi party, but none of the von Trapps supported them. “When you’re 15 or 16, and you have a boyfriend, you have to kind of think like he does,” he said.
Lettner remembers his time with the family fondly, and said he travels to every performance of The Sound of Music within driving distance. Peppered with questions from the cast and crew of the HCO production, he agreed to lend some of the memorabilia to them so they could study them further. And, when it came time for rehearsal following the discussion, Lettner stayed to see their hard work under the bright lights.
When asked what kind of person the real Maria was, Lettner said she was a strong-willed and dynamic woman, although not really his type. I wouldn’t have married her, he said. “But Julie Andrews, any time!”
The HCO production will be held from June 14 to June 19 at the Saint Mary’s University Page Theater. Money raised will help support HCO’s mission of serving children and adults with developmental disabilities.