Summer, 1938: Parody of The Sound of Music Hits All the Right Notes

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The Hills Are Alive!
New York International Fringe Festival
Theater 80
St. Mark’s Place
New York, N.Y.

Ashley Ball, with guitar, plays Mathilde van Trapp.

When we last saw Maria von Trapp, the lovable nanny of the adorable von Trapp kids and new wife of the Captain, it was the summer of 1938. The Nazis had taken over Austria, von Trapp had been conscripted into the German Navy and he fled over the Alps with his children to freedom, first to Switzerland and then later to America. The family’s story became legend in the play and movie The Sound of Music.

Maria (renamed Mathilde) is back in The Hills Are Alive!, a spoof sequel to that famous story (they are now the van Klapps). In this farce, the van Klapps really mess up their escape through the mountains, fighting constantly with each other and boring each other to death with their incessant singing.

The Hills Are Alive is such a successful play about history. It is bold, brash and hilarious. Even if you have never seen The Sound of Music (is there anyone who somehow missed it -- trapped by a hurricane when it's on TV?), you will love this show.

The play starts with the Captain, Mathilde and all of his eight kids high up in the Alps on the run from the despised Nazis. They have sung their way up the mountainside and sing their way into their campsite. All the van Klapps do is sing. Suddenly, the Captain disappears. A bright red Nazi bandana is found the next morning and it is feared the Nazis have captured him. The brave band, led by Mathilde, moves on. Then Mathilde, singing lustily, spins herself right off the cliff and vanishes. Later, Fritz, the new head of the family (as the first-born male) falls from a tree and seemingly dies. And so it goes. Every fifteen minutes or so another van Klapp disappears, as if the play was Agatha Christie's take on the Anschluss, until the only two remaining girls decide to head back to their palatial estate in Austria, where blonde Ludwiga says that at least she had her closets full of new clothes and lots of candy.

Will the pair make it? Will they die? Will the Nazis enslave them? Will any of the missing van Klapps survive and re-appear? You’ll have to spin your way to the theater to find out.

The talented cast in The Hills Are Alive has a good time making fun of the Nazis. In one of the show’s first numbers, they march about, thrusting their arms in the air in a mock "Heil Hitler" salute while they scorch the Nazis in the song. Ludwiga’s old boyfriend, who became a Nazi soldier, is ridiculed throughout the show.

There are touches of hilarity, such as fourteen-year-old Fritz’s uncontrollable lust for his hot new young stepmom Mathilde, not to mention the merciless beating his sister Lotte gives him.

The songs resemble those in the play and film. There is a wonderful challenge tune to the famous "Do-Re-Mi" called "Crochets and Quavers" that is very funny. There is an uproarious dream ballet and meetings with Austrian mountain men who make their American counterparts look like Einsteins.

Much of the play’s success rests in its unabashed spoofing of Austria when the Nazis annexed it as part of Germany in 1938. There is a Sound of Music sing-a-long movie touring the country in which audiences sing along with the songs of the show. They are also told to boo lustily whenever Nazis appear on screen. Everybody hoots and howls when the Nazis are brought up and explode in laugher when the kids try to do the notorious goose step. Hitler himself is spared from ridicule, and I don’t know why.

The play has its drawbacks. The Fringe Festival, now in its twelfth season in New York, works on a limited budget, and that shows in the sets. They are, well, minimal. The lighting is chancy, too.

The history in the play could be stronger. The unopposed takeover of Austria by Germany after years of pressure was a significant event in 1938. It was a dramatic story, topped off by murders of several hundred Austrians from 1933 to 1938 and the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in 1934. Some of that was in the movie. There should be more in the play, even if just a thirty-second piece of dialogue to give audiences the proper historical setting for the play, based on a true story.

The talented Frankie Johnson wrote the book and lyrics and Eric Thomas Johnson wrote the music. They did fine work. The pair gets wonderful performances from Ashley Ball as Mathilde, Trenton Weaver as Captain van Klapp, Katie Bland as Bettina, Daniele Hager as Magda, Skylar Saltz as Ludwiga, Maggie Wetzel as Lotte and Becky Whitcomb as Knut. Johnson plays Gerdy.

Fringe Festival plays often start in New York and then move to other cities. If The Hills Are Alive! comes to your city, see it. Listen to your Sound of Music CD, grab your hiking stick and run to the box office. This is a good one.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Melodion Theatre, the Present Company and the New York International Fringe Festival. Choreography: Jody Herman; Fight Choreography: Rin Allen; Costumes: Jennifer Ackland; Lighting: Nick Gonsman. The play was directed by Frankie Johnson.

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