The Hills Are Alive
With edelweiss in hand, David Finkle examines the Sing-A-Long Sound of Music phenomenon.
The old saw about tragedy coming back as farce may have a corollary: Earnestness comes back as camp. Confirmation of that theory is now at hand with the arrival on these shores of Sing-A-Long Sound of Music, one of the early autumn's unlikeliest hybrid experiences.
Is it a movie? Is it a theatrical presentation? Is it a performance piece? Is it a gag--or gag-worthy? Probably all of the above, as the abundant press coverage has made plain. By now, most New Yorkers, if not the rest of the country's population, are aware that the 1965 Oscar-winning movie, The Sound of Music, is having a strange reissue as a sing-along-cum-costume-parade event.
To make this thing work, Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics have been posted on prints of the fabulously successful 20th Century Fox release. It all started when a London entrepreneur got the bright idea of encouraging patrons to raise their on- or off-key voices in song along with Julie Andrews and the other actors (or their singing voice doubles!) who got paid to croon the Hammerstein-Richard Rodgers score on celluloid after Mary Martin, Theodore Bikel, and sundry others had blared it from a Broadway stage.
Before you could say "raindrops on roses," ticket-buyers were showing up in outfits suggested by the songs. Nuns and alive hills and lonely goatherds and schnitzels with noodles were arriving to take their seats, join the on-screen performers in lusty renditions of "Do-Re-Mi" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and talk back to the characters. Cashing in on the success of this initial outing, a tour of the English provinces followed. A phenomenon was born, and it has now been imported to America in codified form.
What happens in the current Sing-A-Long Sound of Music is that, before the film fave is screened, a host--working from a loose script--takes about 30 minutes to run a costume contest and to explain what to do with the contents of a plastic bag filled with props (a party popper, a fabric swatch, tatty artificial edelweiss, etc.) that's been handed out at the door. This, of course, is the part that passes loosely for theater, since a live person--a stand-up comic like Karen Bergreen, a monologuist like Kate Rigg, or an actor like Adam Beckworth--tries to grab laughs while priming the audience for what's to come.
During the American premiere run of the newly-rigged property at the Ziegfeld, as many as 1200 enthusiasts per showing can participate in the frenzied activities. After this, the producers hope to locate a smaller venue where Sing-A-Long Sound of Music can hunker down for considerably longer. David J. Foster, one of the producers this side of the Atlantic, says he's hoping for something of a staple, as happened with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He thinks this enterprise stands every chance of fulfilling that goal, because--depending on who's in the audience--it can register as either "a post-modern joke or straight movie experience."
On the evidence of the sneak preview attended by this writer, Sing-A-Long Sound of Music--which was called Sing-A-Long-A Sound of Music abroad--is a very strange bird, indeed. (Incidentally, I saw the original stage version of The Sound of Music at its second of third pre-Broadway performance in New Haven, and so have been aware of the property's strengths and weaknesses for over 40 years.) The sing-and-talk-along idea seems a strong one, since there is much in the property that calls for good-natured--or maybe not-so-good-natured--jeers. The tale of how the singing Von Trapp family escaped from their beloved Austria after the German Anschluss is given rather a hokey tweaking in the musical; Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (not Hammerstein) wrote the book for the stage original, while Ernest Lehman did the screenplay. Also, Hammerstein, whose gift for sentiment melted into sentimentality as he got older, turns on the treacle faucet far too often with lines about children who "fleetly flit" and "a lark who is learning to pray." It could be said that the real Maria Von Trapp's appearance in the flick is a metaphor for how true-to-life the film is: She is seen for only about two or three seconds early in the film, crossing a plaza far from the action.
Nevertheless, both on stage and film, The Sound of Music has its subtleties; it was shrewd of the creators to start the show with a song about hills and then move on to the stolid "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as adumbrations of the Von Trapps' flight over hill and mountain. And, of course, a family using music to survive potential extinction makes for a powerful denouement. Whether or not the Von Trapps evaded their Nazi pursuers as shown in the film is practically beside the point; the episode, as presented on Broadway and on the wide screen, is hard to resist.
Then there's the musical's strongest asset: Richard Rodgers' melodies. When Rodgers was on a roll, he was incapable of turning out a second-rate song. No matter how coy, quaint, or simple-minded Hammerstein allowed himself to be, Rodgers kept warm yet astringent notes flowing--much like the brook skipping over stones in its way that Hammerstein mentions in the title tune. Basic as "Do-Re-Mi" seems, it has an irresistible romantic sweep. "The Lonely Goatherd" (during which, in the film, members of the cast supposedly manipulate Bil and Cora Baird's pop-eyed marionettes) tells a children's story, yet the song features a panoply of sophisticated yodeling patterns. Even "Something Good"--which Rodgers added to the score, and for which he supplied somewhat mundane words--has an alluring, bittersweet quality.
Rodgers, of course, was notorious for disliking any liberties taken with his music. If a line was written for, say, eighth notes, he expected it to be sung accordingly. So it's worth wondering how he would have reacted to even the gentlest send-up of his most commercial score. Bert Fink--a spokesperson for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which gladly gave the green light to Sing-A-Long Sound of Music--suspects that Rodgers would have been pleased to hear choirs 1,200-strong intoning "Edelweiss." (That song, by the way, contains the last set of lyrics Hammerstein ever wrote.)
What Rodgers might have also noticed is that, along with the Von Trapp saga and director Robert Wise's depiction of it, those tunes are a deciding factor in the unspoken Sing-A-Long Sound of Music contest between audience and film. Tart-tongued ticket buyers, many of them presumably homosexual, may hurl derogatory remarks at the screen, particularly when Eleanor Parker is on view as the Baroness. (The host encourages the audience to hiss the character.) But, wave edelweiss and caterwaul as they might, everyone pretty much quiets down by the second half of the film. What happens is that the crowd is giving ear to the songs. Thanks to Rodgers and those fleeing Von Trapps, the movie wins.
All of which leads to speculation about what kind of a foothold Sing-A-Long Sound of Music is likely to get in the show-biz marketplace. Will a chance to have some harmless fun passing themselves off as demented nuns keep audiences large or small coming to this re-release--especially when the show runs nearly four hours, including the pre-screening shenanigans? Maybe Sound of Music lovers will be glad to see the movie again because of the added frills--or despite them. In that case, long-term success would be assured.
But Sing-A-Long Sound of Music raises a larger issue about the status of the musical. If one of the most adored tuners in Broadway history is now fodder for ridicule, no matter how affectionate, what does that suggest about the esteem musicals are accorded today? Has waning interest in the musical as spectacle and the inability of the small musical to make much of a resurgence created a climate in which the breed in general is a woefully endangered species? If potential audiences don't know how to take musicals, perhaps they will eventually stop taking them in at all, even on Broadway.