The Sound of Music: The Family That Sings Together Motivates Together

Captain Von Trapp picks up his guitar to play…just like yesterday! Maria saves the day!

MOTIVATIONS AT THE MIDPOINT: When Characters Move the Audience 

We’re wrapping up our focus on a story’s arc as it relates to character motivations—and illustrating with a musical monologue from another Julie Andrews classic, The Sound of Music.

First, let’s first take a look at the plot to appreciate how a song sung to one audience in the middle had different connotations when it was sung to a different audience near the end:

Maria (Andrews) is a young woman who is trying desperately to fit in at an Austrian convent just prior to World War II. The Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood), however, knows that Maria will make a lousy nun because Maria can’t follow the rules and instead spends most of her time singing in the Alpine foothills. The Mother Abbess then sends Maria off to help a local naval hero, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), who is having trouble handling his seven mischievous children after their mother’s death.

This set-up leads us to an in evitable conflict in the middle of the movie—Maria is rebellious, so she disobeys the Captain’s orders and teaches the children to sing one song after another. She’s a bad influence, indeed and he is livid!

But wait! A few moments later, it becomes quite clear that his children’s singing—or the “sound of music”—is precisely the medicine that The Captain needs for his aching soul.  Before you know it, he and Maria fall in love and get married, thereby answering one of the earlier musical numbers from the movie: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”

So at this point, at the end of the middle (aka the end of Act 2), one has to ask: what can go wrong now (in Act 3)? After all, the initial goals, desires, drives, and values that have fueled everyone’s motivations up to that point are pretty much resolved. To answer the question of what could happen next, let’s revert back to the midpoint where The Captain hears his children singing—he is motivated to pick up a guitar and start singing a song that has laid dormant in his heart ever since his wife’s passing:

“Edelweiss..Edelweiss…Bless my homeland forever.”

Captain Von Trapp entertains his children with an ode to his homeland sans Nazis.

This simple song is so moving to his audience (the children and Maria) that his concert promoter friend, Max, decides this family act needs to form a singing group, The Von Trapp Family Singers.

This song also takes the narrative energy from a motivation that is resolved and revs up the story engine for the rest of the movie.  This happens because the song serves as the centerpiece of the thematic struggle that the Von Trapp family will face next: join in on the nationalist frenzy that is consuming their beloved homeland, or realize that the sound of music is not so much in your ears as it is in your soul.

So let’s pick up the plot again where “Edelwiess” shows up as a reprise in Act 3.  The Captain sings the song at a music festival where his audience (and the context) has changed from the people he loves to the Nazi overlords who have ordered him to join the German navy. He struggles to finish the performance when his wife and children join him on stage to help him deliver a bittersweet farewell to his homeland.

Captain Von Trapp reprises his theme song, but this time the Nazis are present.

He struggles because he knows that he must be like Maria leaving her Alpine meadows…he must be like Maria disobeying the orders of his superiors…he must be like Maria teaching his children to sing a new song.

Which he does when he grabs his family and heads for the mountains, where they will climb to escape from the Nazis who have overtaken his beloved homeland—but not the love of his family and the sound of his children singing.

Some may think this story is pretty sappy (like Gene Kelly when they asked him to direct it), but they are in the minority. The Sound of Musicdeeply moved audiences—becoming one of the most commercially successful films and winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It still moves audiences today.


That can happen when you pay attention to the midpoint—where character motivations are tested, re-directed, reshaped, re-evaluated or resolved. 

For this session, we’ll focus on how character motivations are resolved in a way that moves the audience. To do so, keep in mind that your audience is looking to be educated, challenged, entertained, validated, uplifted, tickled, horrified, comforted, and so on In other words do not look at the audience as there to give you something, like applause and laughter…look at them as being there to get something from you.

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