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MOVIES

The Hall Is Alive With the Sound of Music

It's the Von Trapp family-meets-'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' Only this time the audience participation has a more innocent edge.

May 14, 2000|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — Here come the nuns in drag, children wearing curtains, and assorted brown paper packages tied up with string. There's a blond-wigged, wicked Baroness, and Uncle Max, with a wry eye-pencil mustache. Off to the left stands a lonely goat without his herd. And nearby a woman with a name tag saying ME (a name she calls herself).

At the Prince Charles Cinema on a recent Sunday, the biweekly "Sing-A-Long-A-Sound of Music" is about to start. This karaoke-style "Rocky Horror"-like event offers "Sound of Music" lovers a chance to worship at the altar of Rodgers & Hammerstein's most famously loved and cynically mocked musical without shame. If my childhood was spent giving after-dinner performances of "Edelweiss," if I once drove from Boston to Los Angeles with just one cassette, lay-ee odl lay-ee oo-ing for 3,000 miles, if I always harbored the secret knowledge that "The Sound of Music" (1965) is the unconscious soundtrack of my life, it is on this cloudy afternoon that I come to learn: I am not alone.

Not since church have groups of strangers so unabashedly huddled together to sing their hearts out in deference to a higher power. It's a scrappy temple, this old theater, with worn seats and a low-budget drag queen as the warmup act. The beer flows--even on Sundays--and there is candy for the children. For about $5, one can buy a "Sing-A-Long-A-Sound of Music" fun pack that contains a foam nun puppet to wave around during "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"; a "curtain headscarf"; poppers to set off at the Captain's Ball; cough drops for hoarse throats; and a plastic sprig of edelweiss to wave slowly every time the film's anthem comes on.

Before the show, we are told there will be subtitles (for the one or two who might not know all the words by heart) and a fancy dress contest at intermission.

"There has to be a careful balance between structure and spontaneity," says Ben Freedman, who runs the Prince Charles. But all this flourish can't mask the spontaneous magic of this event, in which three generations of devoted followers come to do in public what they've been doing in private all their lives--singing along to "The Sound of Music."

Nevertheless, we're instructed to hiss at the Baroness, boo the Nazis. And when we see Julie Andrews, we should yell out an exuberant "Hi, Julie!"

But when the lights dim and the camera swoops across the Alps to the tiny figure on the horizon that is our beloved heroine, the obedient "Hi, Julies" are drowned out in raucous, thrilling cheers more common at Super Bowl parties or mud-wrestling matches.

And when the camera zooms in and Julie bursts into "The hills are alive," every person in the audience joins in, blissfully, unself-consciously. Between songs, the audience participation is pure revival meeting: When the nuns sing the line from "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?": "I'd like to say a word in her behalf . . . Maria makes me laugh." We join in. (Ha, ha, ha!) When Maria confesses to the Reverend Mother that she was singing without permission, the crowd gasps (Oh no! Not that!). When Maria opens the gate to the Von Trapp mansion, we cheer her on (Yeah! Woo!). And when she rings the doorbell to the mansion, someone cries out, "Avon calling!"

Lest there be any confusion, this commentary is delivered with the utmost affection and respect. Still, this is London, and the audience can occasionally veer toward the naughty. In the scene in which Liesl invents an imaginary telegram to the object of her affections: "Dear Rolf. Stop. Don't stop!" (Ooohhhhh!) And the next time Rolf comes looking for Liesl, someone shouts: "Is that a telegram in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"

Audience members pop up to take bows when their namesakes appear on screen. As the rest sing heartily to "My Favorite Things," (When the DOG bites, when the BEE stings!), the brown paper package du jour rises and takes a 360-degree bow. When the children run free in their new play clothes sewn by Maria from her old curtains, eight identically dressed girls skip and dance in the aisles.

*

The "Sing-A-Long-A-Sound of Music" was introduced at London's 1998 Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The event's organizer, Robin Cook, got the idea from a retirement home in Glasgow that had passed out song sheets at a screening of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

David Johnson, a theater producer responsible for the stage version of "Trainspotting," among other productions, happened to try to buy tickets at the festival and found that it was sold out.

"I thought, 'Oh, God, we must do something with this,' " Johnson recalls over a glass of wine at his members-only club Teatro, near the theater district in London.

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