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Fact or Fiction? The Real Story of the Von Trapps

The real Von Trapp Family Singers in 1941

By Liz Armstrong

Yes, The Sound of Music is a greatly beloved play and movie because of its inspiring story—but how much of it is true? Based on the von Trapp family, the musical is neither entirely fact or fiction, but instead lying somewhere in the middle. In fact, one of the most common critiques of the play is how “historically inaccurate” it is, so it may be wise to come with a heart ready to be swept away by the story of warmth and love rather than a mind ready for a history lesson. 

The play is based the actual Maria Augusta Trapp’s 1949 memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which chronicles the family’s beginnings in Salzburg, Austria, through its escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, to the family’s eventual relocation to America.

So, then, what is the real story of the von Trapp family? Let’s find out. 

The Children

Starting at the very beginning, Maria didn’t come to the family to be a governess to all of the children, but was hired in 1926 to tutor just one child who was recovering from scarlet fever at the time. In actuality, almost all of their names and sexes of the children were changed for the play. One of the biggest changes was that the oldest child, Rupert, became sixteen-year old Liesl. When the family fled Austria, Rupert was already in his late-twenties and a practicing physician. 

The Geography 

The von Trapps didn’t really escape the Nazis by crossing over the mountains into Switzerland. If they would’ve fled over the Austrian mountains, they would have ended up right in Germany. “Don’t they know geography in Hollywood?” the real-life Maria exclaimed when she witnessed the scene.

In real life, their escape wasn’t so dramatic. They simply took the train to Italy! Good thing too, as the Nazis closed the border the next day. The daughter Maria noted in an interview with Opera News that the family was honest that they were going to America to sing and that they “left in broad daylight, pretending nothing.” 

The Singing 

In the musical, Maria teaches the children to sing and the captain to love. However, it wasn’t her that taught the children music after all. Before Maria came along, the captain and his first wife encouraged singing in the home. 

Opposed to the stern captain depicted in the play, Georg was actually said to be very warm and loving even if he was “a little overwhelmed.” After Maria arrived, a priest named Father Franz Wasner heard the children sing and believed they had great potential. During the production of the show, Maria was perplexed that Father Wasner wasn’t being included, but producers told her that either Maria or Father Wasner could be in the play, but not both. 

A lack of funds also encouraged the family to consider singing as a profession. The von Trapp family wasn’t as wealthy as the play portrayed. In fact, most of the family servants had been dismissed at the time they began singing as a family. 

Daughter Eleonore told The Washington Post that because of this, it was hard for Captain von Trapp to see his family on stage. “It almost hurt [my father] to have his family on stage, not from a snobbish view, but more from a protective one,” she said. 

The Love Story

For a play displaying such immense love, it may be disappointing to find out that in real life, Maria did not love Captain von Trapp. In her memoir, she wrote that when she married him, she loved the children but just “liked” him. However, she later said that she loved him more than anyone that came before or after him. 

In addition to her hesitation to marry Georg, the timeline of their love story doesn’t quite add up. In reality, they were married ten years before they fled Austria, not immediately before like the musical suggests. 

So there it is– the real story of the von Trapps! Although there are some major differences, The Sound of Music is still inspiring. In fact, knowing the von Trapp family was indeed a real-life, talented family makes our hearts swell. 

For more information on this play and to purchase tickets, visit bard.org/plays.

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