"Vincent J. Donehue was a former actor and Tony award-winning stage director who had gone to work at Paramount late in 1956. One day he was asked to look at a German film called The Trapp Family Singers which had been a big success in Europe and South America, with a view to his directing a movie in English based upon it and starring Audrey Hepburn. The German film told the life story of Maria, Baroness von Trapp, and her beginnings as a postulant nun in Austria who was sent to be governess to the seven children of the widowed Georg von Trapp.
They were later married and escaped from Austria just before the Anschluss, finding their way across the Alps into Switzerland and from there to the United States, where they became famous as the singing Trapps." 'It was in many ways amateurish,' Donehue said of the film, 'but I was terribly moved by the whole idea of it, almost sobbing.'
He saw it immediately as a perfect vehicle for Mary Martin, whose husband, Richard Halliday, was one of his closest friends. When Audrey Hepburn's interest in the project faded, Paramount lost its enthusiasm and let its option lapse. Donehue sent the German film to Richard Halliday. Both he and Mary Martin loved the film. '
The idea was just irresistible,' Mary said, 'a semi-Cinderella story, but true.'"Actually, it wasn't true at all. The real-life Maria Rainer had had a loveless childhood as the ward of a provincial judge and joined a monastery where, far from being a ray of sunshine, she became so ill she was sent 'outside' to be a governess to one of Georg von Trapp's daughters, who was bedridden. Unlike the music-hating martinet portrayed in the [Broadway] version, von Trapp was a loving parent who encouraged his children to play instruments and sing. Nor did they escape over the Alps pursued by the Nazis; they took a train to Italy and reached America by way of England."Nevertheless, there was not the slightest doubt in Halliday's or Mary Martin's minds that it would make a great musical, and both agreed from the outset that they wanted Rodgers and Hammerstein to produce it. But there were all sorts of obstacles to be overcome before anything like a Broadway show could be mounted. First, Halliday had to try to locate Maria von Trapp and her children, all of whose permissions would be required if they were to be portrayed live on stage. The Baroness, however, was hard to find. She was on a world tour, establishing missions in the South Seas. Letters addressed to her in Australia, Tahiti, Samoa, and other locations failed to reach her. In addition, the seven von Trapp children were scattered in various places around the world and were proving just as elusive. "
At this point, Halliday's lawyer Bill Fitelson brought in producer Leland Hayward, and Hayward became as enthusiastic as everyone else about the possibilities of the story. Together, Hayward and Fitelson chased all over Europe picking up hints and clues as to the whereabouts of the Trapp children. By the autumn of 1957, they had all the necessary permissions sewn together. The seven von Trapp children had been traced and had signed on the dotted line. The contract with Baroness von Trapp was finalized in a hospital ward in Innsbruck, where she was recuperating from malaria contracted in New Guinea. Leland Hayward, who spoke no German, concluded his negotiations with the representative of the German film company, who spoke no English, in Yiddish!"
Frederick Nolan, The Sound of Their Music, Applause Books, Copyright 2002 by Frederick Nolan, pp. 244-246