An obit in the mufti of another stellar SteynMusic post.
This week’s song comes by way of multiple requests. Christopher Plummer died on Friday, after three-quarters of a century as an acclaimed actor. That’s to say, his first great turn was as a seventeen-year-old Mr Darcy in the 1946 Montreal High School production of Pride and Prejudice, a performance which was sufficiently striking to catch the eye of the Montreal Gazette‘s drama critic, Herbert Whittaker. Master Plummer was born into a distinguished lineage – the great-grandson of Canada’s third prime minister Sir John Abbott and a cousin of Nigel Bruce (Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes) – and was thinking of becoming a concert pianist until he saw Olivier in Henry V. On screen, he had perhaps the most spectacular final decade of any veteran actor, becoming the oldest Oscar winner at the age of eighty-two for Beginners, and indeed, as Steve Sailer points out, earning almost half of all the Best Supporting Actor nominations ever given to octogenarians. A year ago, alas, his very last film, Knives Out, completely wasted his talents.
And yet, and yet… As he had known for over half-a-century, the very first line of every single TV and radio obit would be that he was the guy who played Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. In the only contact I had with him, back in the Nineties, he was mature enough to appreciate that it was the film that made him a global star but also sufficiently irked to bemoan that he was most famous for an anomaly rather than for what he did, brilliantly, for seven decades. Sure enough, on Friday’s news bulletins, the anchors announced his passing and there’d be a little clip of him, with his guitar, warbling “Edelweiss”.
The only problem is that that isn’t Christopher Plummer singing, but Bill Lee, a versatile playback singer whose voice was dubbed in for “Edelweiss” and “Something Good”. You can hear Mr Lee’s other vocal work in South Pacific, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins and many more.
This lovely song’s backstory is quite a good one in its own right. For one thing, “Edelweiss” was the very last lyric the legendary Oscar Hammerstein ever penned, written as he was dying from cancer.
Not for the first time, Hammerstein had done too good a job. Just as his “Ol’ Man River” for Show Boat is assumed by many to be an authentic Negro spiritual, so “Edelweiss” is assumed to be an authentic Austrian folk song. Not so. In both cases, a great craftsman manufactured them to solve a structural problem with the storytelling. But he did it so well that they have become for real what they were only intended to simulate. Some years ago “Edelweiss” was played at the White House, at a state dinner for Austria’s President Kirschschlager, and everyone but the Austrians stood up for the national anthem. Actually, no. The current Austrian anthem is “Land der Berge, Land am Strome”, and the only official anthem by Rodgers & Hammerstein is their title number for their very first show, which serves as the state song of Oklahoma. In a curious example of how the lines between reality and showbusiness blur, among the guests at that White House banquet was the elderly Maria von Trapp – not Julie Andrews, not Mary Martin, but the real Baroness von Trapp.
Hammerstein never lived to see his last lyric’s greatest success. He knew he was in pain and he figured out why (the truth about his condition had been kept from him by his partner and family; as his son William explained, “Because of the kind of person he was, and the super-positive attitude he had towards life, we decided not to tell him. Because it wouldn’t have done him any good”—M). Not long after The Sound Of Music opened, he went to see his doctor and demanded to be told the truth about his condition. That day, he had a lunch appointment with Richard Rodgers, and told his composing partner what the other man already knew. His doctor had offered him three alternatives: another operation, which would be painful and could never cure the cancer; a trip to Washington for a new experimental treatment which would also be painful and temporary; or he could do nothing except enjoy the time he had left with his family at their home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Rodgers asked him which option he would choose. “I’m just going down to Doylestown,” said Hammerstein, “and stay on the farm until I die.”
At the end of lunch, two sober middle-aged men rose, shook hands and parted.
Rodgers recalled that, during their conversation, they’d been interrupted by a gentleman from a few tables away. He was visiting New York from the Midwest and asked if they’d mind autographing his menu. They obliged, and he then said: “I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but one thing bothers me. You’re both extremely successful men, at the top of your profession, and I’m sure you don’t have a worry in the world. I was just wondering what could possibly make you both look so sad.”
When Hammerstein died, Theodore Bikel was on stage every night on Broadway still singing “Edelweiss”, and he noticed something about the song. “This dying man writing the very last lyric of his career,” he said, “the very last word he wrote was ‘forever’.” But a great song is forever and, almost six decades on, the last bud of the most spectacular partnership in theatre history has bloomed and grown.
As incredible as it may seem, there’s still a ton of good stuff to the story even yet, of which you will want to read the etc.