Within our nearly 600 archival collections in the Music Division lie not only scores, sketches, correspondence and iconography, but countless untold stories. Being able to piece together these stories and uncover a stranger’s personality and contribution to our cultural history is one of the greatest joys I get to experience working here. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine showed me some letters written by Sister Gregory of Rosary College found in the Oscar Hammerstein II Collection. Sr. Gregory served as an advisor on religious life to the creators of the 1959 musical The Sound of Music. I’ve always been fascinated by those who enter religious life, so I gladly perused the letters. What I didn’t anticipate was how Sister Gregory’s correspondence would truly touch me and even bring me to like a song I had never come to appreciate before.
Sister Gregory (1912-1995) was a Dominican nun and theater professor at Rosary College in Illinois (now Dominican University). Every summer Sr. Gregory would travel to New York City to go to the theater and she developed personal relationships with several famous actors, including Mary Martin with whom she connected after seeing South Pacific in 1949. A decade later, when Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed up with writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, as well as Mary Martin and producer Richard Halliday (also Martin’s husband) for a new project about the Trapp Family Singers, Sr. Gregory was contacted to provide an inside perspective on religious life for the musical’s convent scenes.
Numerous sources have identified Sr. Gregory as a technical advisor to the creators of The Sound of Music, though many of them mention her only in passing. Her correspondence begins in early 1958 after she’s first contacted by Halliday and Martin about a project based on the Trapp story. She’s enthusiastic from the very mention of it and immediately begins offering an inside perspective on what draws women to the religious life, the numerous opportunities postulants and novices have to evaluate their decision to enter the convent, and what motivates the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She even delves into the philosophical heart of the Trapp story when she writes, “The whole purpose of life, it seems to me, is pin-pointed in Maria’s struggle to choose between two vocations. Like every adult human being, she must find the answer to the question: ‘What does God want me to do with my life? How does He wish me to spend my love?’” This question apparently had an impact on the creative team, as Sr. Gregory’s phrasing is incorporated into Scene 13 of the published script when Maria returns to the abbey after her feelings for Captain Von Trapp complicate her life plans. Mother Abbess comforts Maria and assures her that, “…you have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is – how does God want you to spend your love?”
There are about 15 pieces of correspondence from Sr. Gregory in the Hammerstein Collection spanning from early 1958 to late 1959. The letters are mostly addressed to Richard Halliday and Mary Martin and were then forwarded to Hammerstein; however, in late 1959 Sr. Gregory started addressing Hammerstein directly, eventually offering him spiritual guidance as he faced stomach cancer. The better part of Sr. Gregory’s correspondence, however, critiques the first draft of the script for the musical where reflections of Catholic traditions and interactions of the religious could be made more authentic. A copy of Halliday’s typed notes from a phone conversation with Sr. Gregory on August 4, 1959 marks a change in her critique though – nowhere in the conversation is religious life even discussed; instead, Sr. Gregory expresses concern over the portrayal of Captain Von Trapp. In her own words, “As the script is now, the Captain is cold… The only scene where I think he is even likeable is the last scene – after they’re married. It’s unbelievable that anyone could change so quickly…As a woman, I’d much rather get my hands on Max!” Here is where the professor of drama emerges, and she cannot help but step outside the role of technical advisor of Catholic matters and assert her critique of character development.
There is a break in the correspondence until September 1959, when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new music is mailed to Sr. Gregory (two months before opening night). She reports that, upon receiving the music, she immediately gathered around a piano with eight other nuns to sing through all of the songs. She effuses over the music and comments, “After a few practice rounds, that ALLELUIA really orbited and soared all over the place…Without question, your professionals will do a better job on the music, but I assure you they will not have nearly as much fun.” Most poignant is Sr. Gregory’s reaction to hearing “Climb Every Mountain” for the first time. She writes, “It’s a beautiful song and drove me to the Chapel…It made me acutely aware of how tremendously fortunate are those who find the dream that will absorb all their love, and finding it, embrace it to the end…So I just had to dash into Chapel, give Him a quick but heart-felt ‘thank you’ and ask that all the youngsters I love so devotedly not only find their dreams but also have the courage to follow them – wherever they lead.”
Now, in all my years watching the 1965 film, I never really came to love “Climb Every Mountain” – I suppose I always found it a little too cheesy with reaching for your dreams, following rainbows, and championing mountains all crammed into one song. However, in reading Sr. Gregory’s thoughts on the universal struggle to find one’s purpose in life, and in witnessing how her early observations and thoughts later fed into Hammerstein’s lyrical development of the song, I all of sudden find the music genuinely moving. The lyrics evolve from an inner dialogue that most every individual navigates at some point or another when considering how we fit into this remarkable universe. Life is about determining our great passion and giving 100% to that passion. It’s a simple concept, but one that resonates with any individual, no matter which rainbow you follow.