The Hollywood hills were alive with the sound of money when 20th Century Fox opened THE SOUND OF MUSIC on March 2, 1965.
Its blockbuster success verified studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck & production head Richard D. Zannuck’s decision to greenlight the musical based on Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1959 Broadway production. It ran for 1,443 performances, with Mary Martin as Maria, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and won the 1960 Tony for Best Musical (tied with FIORELLO).
Two years before that opening, Paramount had purchased the movie rights to the Von Trapp Singers’ story, planning to cast Audrey Hepburn as Maria. But Hepburn passed and Paramount dropped the project. Fox bought those rights in 1960 for $1.25M, a hefty sum, especially after three years of producing the historical epic CLEOPATRA nearly bankrupted the studio.
The Zanucks believed in MUSIC and hired Ernest Lehman to adapt it. Lehman was a star screenwriter at the time, having written such hits as Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961) & Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). Paramount had signed William Wyler, who directed Hepburn in her 1953 breakthrough film ROMAN HOLIDAY. When Fox took over, Wyler stayed on, but his vision of the film proved to be too dark. The studio turned to Wise, an A-List director with credits like WEST SIDE STORY & the 1951 sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Wise passed because MUSIC seemed so saccharine. He said no 3 times, but then had a change of heart when the deal for his next movie, THE SAND PEBBLES, ran into delays and he could fit in a project that was ready to go.
Julie Andrews, Wise’s first choice for Maria, became a powerhouse Broadway star in 1956 when MY FAIR LADY opened on Broadway. But no one knew if she’d be equally engaging on screen. Andrews famously lost out to Hepburn to play Eliza in the movie version of LADY. Then Walt Disney signed her to star in MARY POPPINS, but it hadn’t opened yet when MUSIC was casting. She almost said no to playing Maria because she thought the role felt too much like Poppins.
MUSIC, of course, triumphed, at both the boxoffice, with over $159M domestically, and at the 38th Annual Academy Awards. It had 10 nominations and won in 5 races, including pictures & directing. Andrews accepted Wise’s Oscar because by then he was in Hong Kong shooting PEBBLES.
Ironically, MUSIC prompted Fox to produce a trio of mega-budget musicals — DOCTOR DOLITTLE (1967), STAR! (1968) & HELLO, DOLLY! (1969) — none of which became hits!