Sound of Music sequel strikes sour note in Austria

The Hills are Alive puppet show teases out immigration issues using famous musical

The Hills are Alive skewers the hard-line immigration policies that lurk behind Austria’s sentimental, soft-focus self-image.

The Hills are Alive skewers the hard-line immigration policies that lurk behind Austria’s sentimental, soft-focus self-image.

 

The hills are alive once more in Austria, but with a more dissonant sound of music. The beloved musical about a singing family’s flight from Nazi-occupied Austria now has an unofficial sequel.

The Hills are Alive is a stage show that premiered this week in Graz, using puppets and music to skewer the hard-line immigration policies that lurk behind Austria’s sentimental, soft-focus self-image.

“We employ cliches about migrants to point out how, not so long ago, Austrians had to emigrate and were dependent on the mercy of other countries,” said Nikolaus Habjan, a 32-year-old puppet artist and co-director of the show. 

The Hills are Alive relates the return to Austria, after many decades abroad, of Maria von Trüpp and her husband Max – with any resemblance to any other family entirely coincidental.

At first the show is an amusing trip down memory lane with Maria reunited with a long-lost admirer: Billy Goat, last seen in 1965 with Julie Andrews in The Lonely Goatherd sequence.

Darker themes

When the goat tries to kiss her, Maria protests: “You smell funny, but not in a funny way.”

Like the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production, however, the new show moves from musical frolics to darker themes, in particular to the revival of 1930s language and thought.

Maria von Trüpp has fled the US, because Donald Trump’s wall has cut through her property. Back in Austria, an immigration official – a cross between Adolf Hitler and far-right ex-interior minister Herbert Kickl – is determined to make the returning emigrant’s life hell.

The evening ends badly for Maria (spoiler alert): shot dead by the immigration official, who insists his gun went off by accident. The curtain falls with one of his underlings assuring him: “Don’t worry, it was just another accident, just another illegal immigrant, case closed.”

Western discourse

Written and co-performed by Neville Tranter, the piece is a subversive exploration of the shift in western discourse towards immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

“The terrible thing is the effort being employed to convince people that migrants are worth less than others,” said Habjan. In his native Austria, few protest now when politicians dehumanise asylum seekers as a “burden” or “unpleasant images”.

The play has attracted rave reviews and has sold out its entire run in Graz. Habjan is convinced his English-language show has relevance all over Europe – and is open to invitations across the continent.

“There is rise around the world, not just in Austria, of inhumane immigration politics and concealed racism,” he said. “But racism is as much about the person who tolerates it as the person who is racist. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”