Some of the children’s roles were altered to be more palatable for a modern audience as well. The romance between von Trapp’s eldest daughter, Leisl, and her telegram-delivering sweetheart Rolf is a charming example of innocent first love, made evident through the much-loved song “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” In the 1965 version, the most intimacy you’ll see is Rolf and Leisl’s quick kiss at the end of the song. The NBC reimagining provided a bit more overt flirtation between the two, including a scene where the two of them tumble down a hill entwined together. Certainly, standards for romance have changed and society has grown more free and expressive—but it’s still interesting to note that a modern audience seemingly required more obvious romantic gestures between Rolf and Leisl in order to convey their affection for one another.
The Mother Abbess was portrayed admirably by Audra McDonald, but it is interesting to note that she is quite young in comparison to the much older Peggy Wood from the 1965 version. And it’s not just the Mother Abbess’ age that has changed, but her relationship with Maria as well. In previous incarnations, the Mother Abbess retains an air of detachment, despite the fact that she cares for Maria. But this Mother Abbess was much more involved and expressive. A good example of this is the scene where Maria is arrayed in her wedding accouterments and requests to look at herself in a mirror. “You mustn’t be vain, Maria,” warns the Mother Abbess before taking the mirror so that the other sisters can look for Maria. But that air of intimidation and warning evaporates in the NBC version, wherein the Mother Abbess dissolves into a smile and giggles excitedly that Maria looks beautiful. Here, the Mother Abbess is not so much an authority figure or mentor as she is a friend to Maria. The warmth and friendliness of the Mother Abbess is not a negative thing by any means, but McDonald’s youthful approach is a far cry from the reserved detachment and quietly understated humor of the 1965 version’s Peggy Wood. This perhaps indicates an attempt on NBC’s part to put a fresher and younger face on religious organization, but that also indicates that they thought an older and more reserved approach would not garner the same amount of interest.
Pointing out all of these differences is not meant to imply that NBC’s The Sound of Music was a failure—on the contrary, their attempts at doing something “old-school” is highly commendable. Yet these character changes remain interesting to note as an example of how society has shifted its ideals and values. What makes a man or a woman sympathetic? How can this audience connect with these characters? Our understanding of these questions has shifted a great deal, if the NBC’s character adjustments are any indication.