At the awkward age of 15, suspended between a child’s ingenuous susceptibility to cuteness and whimsy ‑ and an adolescent’s desire to be cool and worldly wise ‑ I joined my parents at the Singapore film premiere of The Sound of Music. Of course, I enjoyed the experience; laughed and wept at all the appropriate moments, and thought Julie Andrews had wonderfully wholesome sex appeal.
As to be expected, cynicism soon set in ‑ and, inspired by the scathing critical putdowns of the musical’s unabashedly schmaltzy tone ‑ I soon took to chortling wickedly at corny feel‑good scenes underscored by that famous refrain, “The hills are alive/With the sound of music…”
But, secretly, I continued to believe in the possibility of a species of wholesome sex appeal which Julie Andrews so perfectly embodied. And I retained a healthy measure of respect for the collaborative musical genius of Messrs Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
By the mid-1970s it was positively unhip to be caught singing along to middle‑aged, mainstream musical fare like those catchy tunes from The Sound Of Music. It was still permissible, of course, to shed a quiet tear or two in a darkened cinema while watching an equally uplifting musical like Lost Horizon. But, as a matter of principle, one did not go around thinking about staging a revival of The Sound of Music.
So when I heard that the Philharmonic Society of Selangor was embarking on a collaborative effort with the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra to stage a full‑scale production of The Sound of Music in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t react at all. Later, when I found out that the irascible Rehman Rashid had been offered the role of Captain von Trapp, I had to smile but I did resolve to see the show, if only for a good snigger.
Well, folks, either the age of cynicism is over ‑ or I’m not the crusty critic I once fancied myself to be. Under the masterful direction (dramatic and musical) of Philip Chai, this production of that well‑worn classic is simply splendid.
When something works so beautifully and goes down so easily, there isn’t really all that much one can say about it ‑ except that I had to stand up and contribute to the thunderous applause that greeted the curtain calls. Of course, one could mention all the ones who shone in their respective rôles ‑ and nitpick about the few that didn’t. One can commend the conscientious and totally satisfying costume and set design ‑ and the unobtrusive (and therefore perfectly effective) stage lighting, And, of course, put in a good word for conductor Eric Lee and the invisible but exceptionally disciplined and accomplished KL Symphony Orchestra (I still think the pit is way too deep at the City Hall Auditorium).
But, at the very least, one must point out that the real magic was in finding the perfect Maria in the very delightful and vivacious Adeline Goh ‑ and a consummate Captain von Trapp in the very impressive and believable Rehman Rashid.
Add to that, the best possible Mother Abbess in the expansive person of Sandra Sodhy, a memorable Max and commendable Baroness Schraeder in Eric Roslee and Mary George, a lovable and enthusiastic troupe of young and not‑so‑young Kinder von Trapp… and we have the makings of a completely successful local staging of an internationally acclaimed Broadway musical.
After this, I’m positive that there is now enough collective experience and talent in Malaysia for mainstream groups like the Phil to take on almost any of the Best‑Known Biggies. My Fair Lady? Boleh! Cats? Boleh! West Side Story? Boleh! Porgy and Bess? Boleh! In the sphere of theater, if not economics and politics, Malaysia definitely boleh!
Revivals of Broadway musicals may not be my preferred theatrical diet, but I for one have always been eager to see our “guys and dolls” from amateur theater circles mature into a professional phalanx of practitioners ‑ and after Thursday night’s special treat at the City Hall Auditorium, I have no doubt that we’ve arrived ‑ right at the turn of the century and a new millennium. For those who missed The Sound of Music the good news is that it will probably be restaged in February 2000. Perhaps this time in the gleaming new Panggung Negara?
Pats on the back all around ‑ especially for the corporate sponsors who put up the hefty RM300,000 production budget. I’m sure the unbroken run of full houses is proof enough that theater, too, can be good business. But I hope present and future sponsors will be slightly more adventurous and occasionally underwrite productions that aren’t 100% mainstream, middle‑of‑the‑road, box‑office hits, We definitely need to hone the cutting edge if we wish to achieve excellence beyond repeating other people’s proven successes.
On a slightly darker note, I was pleased (in a perverse way) to note that there’s concealed subversion to be found even in the most innocuous theatrical fare. The rude intrusion of the Third Reich into Maria Rainer’s alpine world of sweetness, light, and innocence ‑ its violation of the Nonnberg Abbey’s rarefied sanctity and the quiet dignity of the von Trapp villa ‑ can be viewed as a classic dramatic device, a chiaroscuro effect that gives the otherwise fluffy storyline a dark, shadowy dimension ‑ I couldn’t help but feel how well it resonated with recent local events.
The sudden sinister turn, the ominous march of evil stealing suddenly upon the numinous domain of decent humanity, was particularly chilling as it evoked images of Gestapo torture, mindless robotism, the supremacy of the state, the rule of Might Is Right ‑ the ugly symptoms of a creeping fascism against which ordinary folk can only feel a sense of impotence and paralysis. The sort of abject powerlessness that breeds the ostrich‑like reactions of Max Detweiller and the Baroness Schraeder (who charmingly preach the “cornmonsense” of compromise and the “wisdom” of self‑interest and personal survival to a righteous, Hitler‑spurning Georg von Trapp).
And in the penultimate scene, as the ethereal grandeur of the Nonnberg Abbey chapel and graceful façade of the von Trapp villa are replaced by stark red banners emblazoned with black swastikas, I found myself silently reciting this little prayer: “God save us all, God save us all from the Barisan Nazi‑onal!”
20 August 1999