The Sound of Music is iconic. It is without a doubt one of the most beloved and well known musicals. For over 50 years it has enthralled audiences across generations, cultures, and borders, from Europe to Asia, South America to Africa—a global fascination that stands as a testament to its universal appeal. Certainly, the amazing score and the heartwarming story are important reasons audiences flock to it. However, one key to its enduring appeal for contemporary audiences lies in its gallery of brave, strong, self-directed women: Maria—rebellious, independent, and adventurous; The Mother Abbess—wise, intuitive, and the moral compass, and Elsa, the Baroness—accomplished, driven, sophisticated, and intelligent.
Set in Austria in the late 1930s, and based on the real life story of Maria vo Trapp (née Kutschera) this musical introduces us to a young, high-spirited woman whom Rodgers and Hammerstein cleverly explain through the lyrics she sings. In Maria’s first song, she sings, “A star has come out to tell me it’s time to go, but deep in the dark green shadows, are voices that urge me to stay.” In that opening moment, they have illuminated for us almost everything we need to know about her. She is a woman at a crossroads, torn between two paths: the order of life at the Abbey (as predictable as the stars), and her desire to learn more about the world around her and the many unknown things it could reveal (the shadows and voices). It is this internal conflict Maria grapples with throughout the story, a struggle that sends her on this adventure. As the song continues, we also get a glimpse of her rebellious nature: “So I pause and I wait and I listen for one more sound, for one more lovely thing the hills might say.” Maria knows she is going to be late returning to the Abbey, but chooses to stay on the mountainside a little bit longer anyway. Perhaps in this moment we get a glimpse into what Maria’s true path should be.
While Maria is still exploring the mountainside, we find the sisters at the Abbey sharing their exasperation with her in a song titled “Maria.” They sing “She climbs trees,” “waltzes on her way to mass,” “sings in the abbey,” and is as “unpredictable as the weather, ” lyrics that humorously paint the picture of a young, rebellious and nonconforming Maria who has a tough time fitting into the world of sisterhood and the expectations that come with it.
The Mother Abbess, on the other hand, grew up in the same mountains as Maria and they share a kinship we soon discover as the two sing “My Favorite Things.” With her usual wisdom and understanding, the Mother Abbess convinces Maria that the best choice is her departure from the Abbey. And as independent and high-spirited as she is, Maria is scared and fearful of the unknown as she embarks on her journey. She sings “I Have Confidence” as she departs, saying “Oh, I must stop all these doubts, all these worries. If I don’t, I just know I’ll turn back. I must dream of the things I am seeking. I am seeking the courage I lack.” Maria acknowledges her fears and doubts, and yet finds the strength and determination to face them—a trait we would certainly expect in any contemporary heroine.
The Mother Abbess is one of the most important characters in The Sound of Music, a source of wisdom, hope and strength. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals tend to feature a strong, wise, and morally astute secondary female lead (think Nettie Fowler in Carousel and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!). This character appears in key moments in the musical, providing much needed guidance and protection. It is the Mother Abbess who sets Maria off on her journey of self discovery, and when she returns to the Abbey, confused and torn between her love for the Captain and her desire to join the sisterhood, the Mother Abbess’s wisdom guides her once again. She tells Maria, “My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn’t mean that you love God less. You must find out. You must go back.” When the von Trapp family must escape the German soldiers, it is the Mother Abbess whose presence is pivotal once again as she and the nuns conceal them from their pursuers. In this moment, she shows her moral steadfastness and her strength and courage as a leader to do what is right, even if her stand might prove dangerous to the Abbey and its inhabitants.
In stark contrast to Maria and the Mother Abbess, Elsa Schraeder is the intelligent, sophisticated and pragmatic Baroness. The Baroness is a wealthy widow from Vienna who becomes the Captain’s fiancée. She is also the president of a corporation which she has run successfully since the death of her husband. The Baroness even jokes about wearing a suit and smoking a big cigar. Given that this musical is set in the 1930s, her professional accomplishments are particularly impressive when juxtaposed with the roles working women were often relegated to in that society. Even today, her status would seem impressive as women continue to fight to break through the “glass ceilings” of the business world. And although she does seem to care for the Captain, she also views their relationship as more of a smart business partnership. She envisions a power couple: the coming together of two successful, wealthy and influential people. She sings, “He’s fond of bonds and he owns a lot, I have a plane and a diesel yacht,” and continues, “Two millionaires with a dream are we, we’re keeping romance alive.” Clearly it isn’t romance that is being kept alive, but a lifestyle. Nevertheless, a woman of this caliber and drive in this era is an impressive choice for a musical character, and her presence impacts audiences today.
It is the presence of these three incredible and unique women that allows The Sound of Music to
remain so fresh and appealing to modern audiences.The traits these characters portray prevent them from falling into the dusty annals of musical theater history, but rather, keep them alive, vibrant and relevant to this day. Maria, the Mother Abbess, and the Baroness each are women that we can identify with, or point to in our own lives. Their vulnerability and complexity helps to make this show one of the most beloved and enduring musicals of all time.