1. Archive


The rebirth of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece as an audience singalong began in London and is spreading to the States. Admit it, you know all the words.

Let's start with the goody-bags containing party poppers, swatches of drapery and a cardboard image of the will-o'-the-wisp. That last item gets waved during How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Then there is the audience, many of whom are attired in wimples or military garb. After all, the London institution that is the Singalong-a Sound of Music is hardly the time to be sedate.

"It works because it's fun, and there are very few things nowadays that are just fun," says Ben Freedman, a co-producer of the captioned event that celebrated its first birthday Aug. 13 at the Prince Charles Cinema in London's West End. (Freedman, 38, is among those who runs the cinema.)

Twice a week for nearly 13 months, everyone from Julie Andrews junkies to karaoke claques have filled the 480-seat Leicester Square movie house, in the process putting a new slant on a beloved Twentieth Century Fox classic.

Based on the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which originally starred Mary Martin, the film won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director (Robert Wise).

On Sept. 6, the Singalong-a went global, minus the final "a," premiering at New York's Ziegfeld Theater. An American Singalong couldn't be better timed: A first-ever DVD of the movie has just been released, while its stars _ Andrews (a.k.a. Dame Julie, as of this year) and Christopher Plummer _ remain as beloved now as in 1965.

Still, when it comes to letting it all hang out _ or dressing up as a lonely goatherd _ it's hard to outdo the British. Licensing laws allow alcoholic drinks to be taken into the cinema. That, coupled with the British fondness for eccentricity, makes for some lusty vocal accompaniment to the celebrated score, not to mention fierce infighting over each particular screening's best costume.

As a result, it's hardly surprising that the Singalong-a spectacle is well under way before the film even starts.

Outside the theater come the costumes on parade, from the inevitable nuns' habits to one "Chris the plumber." One fan repeatedly came attired, in accordance with the song lyric, as "ray, a drop of golden sun" _ "first in a sunburst headdress, the next time in a huge yellow caftan, then with candle embroidery," recalls David Johnson, an initial Singalong-a co-producer. "It just got weirder and more wonderful."

Prizes are awarded for best garb, voted on by shouts of approval (or not) from the audience. At each showing, a guest emcee explains the rules to uninitiated; one recent Sunday afternoon, it was Candy von Floss, a drag artiste hailing, or so s/he told us, from Schloss Floss.

"Don't do it," shouted one audience member, as Andrews' Maria shyly enters the palatial Austrian manse of Plummer's icily sexy Capt. von Trapp.

Later, making his apologies to the governess he ends up loving, the captain confesses to Maria, "I behaved badly." "Spank yourself!" was one random retort from the crowd.

In a break during the film intended not least to revisit the bar, an audience encompassing gay couples, families and sizable tours from suburban Essex all paused to reflect on the phenomenon unfolding around them. Indeed, it's not often that the same event is regularly listed in the kids' and gay sections of various London publications.

"It's such clean-cut fun," said Jeremy Smith, who will be 40 next month. The appeal, he said, is in "being able to be a bit silly occasionally."

Dressed in what he called "edelweiss braces," his wife Diana sporting a Tyrolean headdress, the Smiths were among a group of 20 attending from an east London suburb. Their interest in the film extended to having themselves performed in the stage show _ for the Ilford Operatic and Dramatic Society, where Diana sang Sister Sophia and Jeremy was Max, the droll concert promoter and friend to Plummer's Georg.

Paula Lawford, an Englishwoman in her early 40s, went to her local shop that morning in Wimbledon and later emerged as "a brown paper package tied up with string" _ just one of Maria's "favorite things."

Why? "I haven't watched the film since 1966, when I was a little girl." Besides, Lawford adds, "We're all camp at heart."

Offering a one-man commentary was 59-year-old Neil Cowan, a San Francisco architect whose impromptu shouts at the screen were themselves worth the $12 admission. "It's Edel-spice," he cried out, catching the fever of a capital in perpetual thrall to one-time Spice Girl Posh.

How will his fellow Americans respond to the event back home? "It will translate wonderfully," says Cowan. "There are so many frustrated writers in the States."

To date, neither of the stars has attended the Singalong-a, although representatives from the show's creators have given it their approval.

"We all thought, what is this, The Rocky Horror Picture Show?" said Theodore S. Chapin, president of New York's Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, who has attended the Singalong-a twice.

"By intermission, I was screaming at the top of my lungs."