The Sound of Music is arguably the most endearing, wholesome musical to hit the screens. It started as a book, was made into a German film, then a Broadway show, and finally, a Hollywood box office sensation. But behind all the glamorous projects stands one Austrian family that survived loss, hardship, and a whole lot of drama – the von Trapps.
The von Trapps were a real family of professional singers who couldn’t have been more different than their on-screen personas. The real Maria wasn’t as sweet, the real Georg wasn’t as stern, and the ten musical kids spent their days working so hard they rarely had time for anything else.
Born into the Austrian aristocracy, Georg von Trapp grew up on nationalist values and joined the navy as soon as he could. He worked diligently, obeying all orders, and rose through the ranks to become a submarine captain. When the World War I engulfed Europe in 1914, he rushed to the Austrian sea coast to clear it from enemy ships.
He did his job well, and by the end of the war, he was given the highest military honors and was considered a naval hero. But no honors could soothe the devastating feeling he felt as his country was forced to surrender at the end of 1918. Austria was crushed.
Austria had surrendered its coastline and surrendered its navy. There was no use for people like Georg anymore. He and his comrades lost their livelihood, their ambition, and with that, their meaning in life. At only 38 years old, Georg was out of work. Luckily for him, he married Agatha, a woman born to an enormously wealthy family.
Agatha had inherited a huge fortune, and neither she nor Georg had to work when the war ended. They led a comfortable, quiet life in their seaside villa along with their seven children. But the quiet didn’t last for very long because in 1922, Agatha died of scarlet fever, leaving Georg to tend to their seven children on his own.
Trying to put the past behind them, Georg and his kids moved away from their seaside villa to a new home in Salzburg. But the new location didn’t help much. And his kids, who were desperately missing their mother, were still depressed. The von Trapp’s second-oldest daughter, Maria, also known as Mitzi, told interviewers that the pain was very deep. “It was terrible for us,” she mentioned.
The family tried to keep it together for four tough years until one day, a young woman named Maria Augusta Kutschera came along and changed their lives forever. She was their new governess who had been sent as help from the local convent, Nonnberg Abbey.
For Maria, moving in with the von Trapps came with much hesitation. At 21 years old, Maria wanted to become a nun and live her life within the walls of Nonnberg Abbey. It was the one place that took her in and treated her well after a lifetime of abuse.
Maria’s mom died from pneumonia when she was still an infant, and her dad abandoned her, leaving her in the merciless hands of her uncle, who would regularly beat her, regardless of how she behaved. She often skipped school, and when she did go, she would always run into trouble.
Life was hell; the one place Maria found peace was in the church.
The church provided harmonious gospel music, a place to confess your sins, and a safe space for Maria to be her true self. She sensed such relief that she decided to dedicate her life to God by becoming a nun. She headed straight to Nonnberg Abbey.
It was clear as daylight, though, that a quiet life as a nun wasn’t in the books for her. Maria was too loud and rowdy. When all the nuns were inside studying in silence, Maria was out running in the fields, whistling and laughing. The Reverend Mother decided it was best to send her away to help Georg. It was the will of God, she told Maria.
Maria rode the bus to the other side of Salzburg and walked a short distance to the von Trapp’s doorsteps. Their massive villa was unlike anything she had ever known. The von Trapps were living a life of wealth and luxury, whereas Maria was, at best, gathering some pennies to buy herself a dress.
“When she came into the house, we didn’t know what to do with her. She had a horrible dress on,” Mitzi von Trapp chuckled while talking to reporters from A&E; “But very soon we took to her because she sang lots of songs.”
Maria brought light to the gloomy family. She took the children on long bike rides and hiked with them on mountain trails near the house. But the one thing she got them to do that changed the course of their lives forever was to sing together as a group.
“We enjoyed singing together, and wherever we went, we went together because we wanted to sing,” Mitzi explained.
Maria and the kids were made for each other. Even Georg seemed like a happier man with her around. One afternoon, he took her by surprise by asking for her hand in marriage.
Maria wasn’t sure how to respond, so she consulted with the Reverend Mother, who, much like when she sent her off, responded with “It’s the will of God.” Maria had been taught always to follow God’s will. Even if that meant marrying a man she didn’t love.
On November 26th, 1927, Georg and Maria tied the knot. Georg was 47. Maria was 22. “I didn’t love him when we married, I loved the children,” she later wrote in her memoir; “and so, in a way, I really married the children.”
Maria was nothing like Georg’s first wife. Agatha was polite and soft, while Maria was irrepressible and had a very short temper. When she would get all riled up, she would stand at the top of the stairs and yell. Fights often involved slammed doors and objects being thrown around in chaos.
Still, for better or for worse, Maria was part of the family. She cared deeply for the kids, and even though Georg suffered from her temper tantrums, he loved her. Before long, three more kids were added to the family – Rosemarie, Eleanore, and a boy named Johannes.
After nearly a decade of comfortable living, the von Trapps financial situation came crashing down. In the fall of 1932, the banks had failed, and with them, the family’s savings. Their wealth was gone for good. But while Georg, struck with fear, froze in place, Maria pushed on. There was no time for self-pitying.
She dismissed most of the servants, crammed the whole family into the third floor, and rented the rest of the rooms to students and priests. This proved to be a life-changing move because now, every time the von Trapps sang around the house, they had a live audience clapping for them.
One of the priests renting a room in their home was Father Franz Wasner who was himself an amateur musician. With Maria’s approval, he became the children’s musical director and spiritual leader. He orchestrated the morning prayers and then orchestrated long, grueling singing lessons.
Before long, the von Trapps began to sound like an actual choir. One afternoon, a family friend dropped by and heard them perform. “Children, you have gold in your throats!” she enthusiastically claimed. Seeing how delighted her friend was, Maria got the idea of performing for audiences in the hopes of earning some extra cash.
Maria enrolled in a local singing contest, signing them up as the Salzburg Trapp Choir. The ten kids stood on stage, and with angelic voices, sang in harmony. It brought the judges to tears. They won first place, and with that, their career was launched.
The Salzburg Trapp Choir was getting more offers than they could find time for. They jumped from performance to performance, earning a good amount of money on the way. But Georg’s elitism wouldn’t allow him to come to terms with his kids’ new profession. Money wasn’t something you worked for, he believed. You simply had it.
But! times-were-a-changin’, and the von Trapps needed to make a living somehow. So, music it was.
In 1937, the Salzburg Trapp Choir set on their first-ever European tour. They performed in front of queens and kings, and even the Pope. Their beautiful, synchronized voices struck a chord with audiences, who were swept with a sense of sweet nostalgia whenever they would hear them sing.
Out of all the people the von Trapps were invited to sing for, one, in particular, stood out: Adolf Hitler. World War II was slowly creeping in, and by the time the von Trapps received his invitation, he had invaded Austria, announcing the annexation of their country with Germany. Georg wasn’t happy, and he politely turned down the invite.
Rather than remain under Nazi rule, Georg took the entire family on a journey across the world. Each kid packed one small suitcase, and together, they said farewell to their beloved home in Salzburg. They marched to the train station and boarded a ride to Italy (sorry, no dramatic climb over the Alps…).
From Italy, they crossed over to London. And from London, they set across the Atlantic, all the way to the U.S. The trip ate away all at all of their savings, leaving them practically penniless as they set foot in New York. Not only that, but the von Trapps were treated as illegal immigrants and were sent straight away to Ellis Island, New York’s immigration inspection center.
After three anxious days, they were set free.
Maria instantly arranged a number of concert dates, but the von Trapps weren’t an immediate hit in America like they were back in Europe. The crowd wasn’t connecting to their holy-than-thou, churchy image. Even their manager, Freddy Schang, said that they lacked the charm to win over American audiences.
So, what changed? Weirdly enough, all the family needed for the audience to love them was for one little fly to find its way into Maria’s throat. During one performance, she choked on the little flying bug and then turned to the crowd, saying, “What has happened never before has happened now. I swallowed a fly.”
The audience laughed enthusiastically. They loved her honesty, and from that moment on, their popularity soared.
The family changed their name to the Trapp Family Singers and became the most heavily booked act in town. They toured eight months a year, cruising around their family bus all over the continent. Little Johannes would run on stage and bow after every performance, winning the crowd over with his blond hair and playful bangs.
Georg would join the stage soon after, clapping his hands and smiling like a proud father. He was the family’s anchor, grounding everyone down with his soothing temper. While Maria was mostly in charge for steering the family’s professional wheel, Georg was in the back, caring for the young ones, tending to the sick, and cooling things down when things got intense.
It wasn’t easy being with each other all year round. Maria insisted on togetherness, so even when they weren’t performing, the von Trapp kids were still constantly around each other. They had little time to socialize and forge any meaningful relationships outside of the family.
Maria knew that if one of the kids married, it would come at the expense of the family choir. Grandchildren, relationships, love – they all brought with them a string of new responsibilities that would tear the family business apart. She wasn’t willing to let that happen.
Not only did the kids have little contact with the outside world, but even if they wanted to strike out on their own, they didn’t have the money to do so. The money from the shows went directly to the family’s collective bank account. They were like a tiny communist country, with the kids as the citizens and Maria as the government.
By 1942, the family had saved enough money to buy a home. The first one they purchased after leaving Salzburg. But, unlike the one in Austria, Maria turned their home in Stowe, Vermont, into a working farm. The kids “slaved” away between tours, planting, harvesting, milking the cows, and carrying out whatever tasks she ordered.
In 1945, a publicist named Alex Williamson suggested Maria write a book about the von Trapps. From their luxurious life in a massive villa to becoming dirt poor to rising from the ashes and using their voices as a way to replace their rags with riches once again. It sounded like a good deal.
Maria’s book, published in 1949, sold incredibly well. It even caught the attention of a movie producer who offered her a hefty sum for the rights. Maria said she would agree to it ONLY if she could play herself. He refused. And so did she. At the time, Maria could afford to turn down offers. The family was doing well.
During one of their tours in the late ‘40s, Georg fell ill. His entire body was overcome by an uncontrollable cough which left him so exhausted he could barely stand. Years of inhaling exhaust fumes in the navy had left his lungs in horrible shape. And they were beginning to give out on him.
An X-ray revealed a devastating truth – lung cancer. On the 30th of May 1947, aged 67, Georg died. The kids were by his bed that day, listening to his heavy breathing until, finally, silence. They buried him in the plot near their house.
Without Georg, the von Trapps soon began to fall apart.
Maria was depressed; guilt and remorse consumed her every thought. She felt terrible for the way she had treated him. She lamented the times she blew up and missed Georg’s soothing guidance. Without it, Maria struggled to keep the family together.
The kids, who were no longer kids by then, but young adults in their 20s and 30s, wanted to lead lives of their own. They began resenting her for all the chores she piled on them − chores which seemed to grow by the minute, likely due to Maria’s fear of abandonment.
Rosemarie, Maria’s eldest, suffered from constant stage fright. And as the years went by, her ability to brace herself in front of crowds diminished. “I had a hard time communicating with my family, and the pressure became very great in my head,” she told interviewers from A&E.
One night, 18-year-old Rosemarie ran outside the house and into the Vermont woods. “I thought maybe I would find relief there,” she revealed. Three days later, Rosemarie was found cold, hungry, and confused. Maria took her to electro-shock therapy. She didn’t know what else to do.
Rosemarie’s breakdown was the first of many that were yet to come. The second one to leave the group was Johanna, who, at 29, had fallen madly in love. Much to Maria’s disdain, Johanna announced she was going to get married.
Furious with her stepdaughter’s decision, Maria locked her in her room. Johanna waited just before dawn to climb out of her second-story window and elope with her lover. After Johanna’s departure, it was clear that the Trapp family couldn’t keep up with their communal lifestyle much longer.
Maria came up with another way to make money. She turned the family lodge into a ski lodge. Slowly but surely, the Trapps found themselves in the hospitality business. But the farm, the music, the ski lodge… it all proved too much, and in 1956, after 20 years together, they finally disbanded.
Without any stable income, Maria rushed into foolish deals. Like selling the rights to her book to a German production company for a sorry fee of $9,000. It’s a deal she would come to regret multiple times in her life. She had no share whatsoever in the many profits yet to come.
The German film, Die Trapp-Familie, aired in 1956 and became a box office sensation. It was such a hit that it was released in the U.S. shortly after, where it caught the attention of Broadway legend Mary Martin.
Mary saw the von Trapp’s story as a golden opportunity to turn it into a Broadway musical. Along with playwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, the Broadway dream team released a masterpiece – The Sound of Music.
When Sound of Music’s producers met with Maria to discuss the project, they were stunned to find out about her lousy 9K deal. They felt a bit sorry for her and offered to give her a small royalty which she gladly accepted.
The Sound of Music premiered on Broadway on November 16th, 1959. At the premiere, Maria wore a dress sent to her by Mary Martin. She was all glammed up and excited to see the show. As she sat in the audience, it was evident to her that the play completely glamorized their story.
Even though The Sound of Music REALLY stretched the truth, Maria still considered the play to be her life’s story. When Mary Martin, who played Maria, came out to take her bow once the play ended, Maria herself stood up too. The audience went wild.
The only aspect Maria didn’t like about the play was how her husband was portrayed. Georg was made to look like some patronizing, strict military man. When in reality, she was way sterner than him. Georg was soft, sensitive, and incredibly kind.
The von Trapp’s fame reached unbelievable heights when The Sound of Music was adapted into a movie. 20th Century Fox paid 1.25 million dollars for the rights. And when Maria learned that a film adaptation was in the works, she demanded to be a part of it.
She appeared on the film set in Salzburg, and in her typically bold style pushed director Robert Wise to give her a role. He eventually let her be an extra in one of the scenes. But her part was so minor that you can barely tell she was ever there.
The Sound of Music was released in theaters around the country in March of 1965. It became the most popular musical in the U.S. The first time Maria saw the film, she was taken aback by how dramatically beautiful everything was.
During the wedding scene, Maria actually got out of her chair and walked down the cinema’s aisle, imagining in her head that she was walking towards Georg again in a white dress and a veil. For Maria, The Sound of Music was her way of reliving her life again.
The Sound of Music may not have made her or the rest of the family rich, but it turned them into celebrities. Maria was invited to talk shows, interviews, lecture tours, and radio shows. She loved to interact with audiences and never tired of giving talks.
The von Trapp kids went on to lead their own quiet lives, raising kids and enjoying each other’s company in peace. But not Maria. Maria was ready to keep traveling and enjoying all the world had to offer her. The more people she interacted with, the more places she saw, the happier she was.
The last years of Maria’s life were difficult. She suffered several small strokes. Her heart grew weak, and her memory failed her as the days went by. In the spring of 1987, she slipped into a coma. Her daughter Eleanore remained by her side as she took her last breath.
Eleanore would later say that she always imagined her mother dying in a dramatic way, because she was such a dramatic person. But she had a very peaceful death. Aged 82, Maria was buried right next to Georg in the family plot.
After we’ve covered the family, it’s time to talk about the musical. It’s time for a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at what went down on set.
Remember the opening scene where Julie Andrews runs back and forth on the mountaintop meadow singing “The hills are alive! With the sound of muuuusic!” As it turns out, she fell multiple times.
“The down draft from those jets was so strong, that every time the helicopter circled around me, the down draft just flattened me into the grass,” Andrews once explained in an interview, “I braced myself, I thought, It’s not going to get me this time. And every single time, I bit the dust.”
People loved and still love The Sound of Music. It’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time. But interestingly, patriarch of the family, Christopher Plummer, wasn’t too psyched about how it turned out. In fact, “not too psyched” might be putting it nicely; he hated it.
Christopher has referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus,” and said that working with Julie Andrews was like being “hit over the head with a Valentine card.” He didn’t like the overall sappiness of the film and would have preferred it to be a bit more put together.
During the boat scene where everyone falls out of the boat, one little girl, 5-year-old Kym Karath (who played Gretl) nearly drowned. “I couldn’t swim,” Karath admitted years later, “So that was a horrible experience.” She swallowed so much water that she began vomiting on Heather Menzies (who played Louisa).
Talking of the incident, Julie Andrews, Kym’s on-screen mom, said, “There was such panic in my heart because that little girl had gone under a couple times, but everybody got to her, of course. She was very brave, and she is with us today as we speak.”
In the film, we see the von Trapps escaping from under the noses of the German soldiers, climbing along the icy Alps, on foot, cold and afraid. But in reality, they took a train. So, it wasn’t AS dramatic as the movie made it out to be, but it was an escape nonetheless!
The scene itself was moving and beautiful, so we forgive the producers for making it up and making us believe that the great escape was one that required sneaking out and crossing icy peaks. We’re also glad that the real von Trapps didn’t have to go through something like that!
The Sound of Music could have looked like a very different film. Julie Andrews thought of turning down the project. She had just finished filming Mary Poppins and wasn’t in the mood for yet another governess character.
Luckily for us, she got over it and decided to do it anyway. She even entertained the young ones on set by singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
In addition, Gene Kelly was in the run for playing Georg von Trapp. It would have been a totally different film with him in it.
The filmmakers really took some creative license with the family tree. In the movie, the eldest child is a girl. But in real life? The von Trapp family had an eldest son. Oh, and Liesl’s character? Pure fiction. Moreover, all the names and ages of the von Trapp children were completely altered.
Another little change: While Captain von Trapp really had seven children from his first marriage, he went on to have three more with Maria. The last kid was a boy who was born in 1939.
Even though the movie changed some stuff, the fact that the family was into music and extremely talented was true in real life too.
Little Gretl, played by Kym Karath, put on a bit of weight during filming. She was growing and maturing to the point that it was hard to carry her around by the end of the film! Karath didn’t appear in the final scene because Christopher Plummer asked for a lighter stunt double to carry on his back.
Karath wasn’t the only one experiencing some bodily changes. Christopher also put on a few pounds. He drank and ate a lot on set, and his outfits had to be adjusted to accommodate his fluctuating waistline!