Arts & Culture » Arts

Tender Trapp

St. Louis celebrates one of its favorite things


More than a half-hour before showtime, the Fox Theatre looks like the downtown Strassenfest. Where in the closets of St. Louis is there room for all these lederhosen? Women dressed as Austrian milkmaids act as giddily as they would if they had just been running in Alpine air. A Tyrolean beat plays as preshow music for Sing-a-long Sound of Music. One couple takes up a dance step that resembles the stiff motions of figures in Bavarian clock towers.

A man and woman enter the auditorium, encased in his-and-hers boxes. They're "brown-paper packages tied up with string," as the lyric from "My Favorite Things" goes, although, the man admits, "I tried to come up with a way to be a goat puppet."

There are so many people dressed as nuns -- men and women -- that if someone from the College of Cardinals were witnessing this, he might call for a reconsideration of Vatican II's loosened directives on sisterly apparel. The Catholic Church has been having a hard time getting women into nunneries lately -- the privilege of wearing a wimple might be worth the price of sexual abstinence.

Many people show up as Von Trapp children dressed for bed. This not only coincides with the costumes for "My Favorite Things" (to assuage the children's fears of lightning and thunder, Maria sings to them in her bedroom, remember?), it allows people to do what probably many moviegoers have always wanted to do -- go to the cinema in their pajamas.

The best entrance of the evening is that of two men who arrive together in an estimated 14 feet of white felt. "We're warm woolen mittens!" they cry. Is this their first time at a Sing-a-long Sound of Music? "Yes, our first time," says the right-hand mitten. And how many times have you seen The Sound of Music? The right hand ponders this question: "I've probably never seen it all the way through."

Since SofM first became a phenomenon nearly four decades ago, millions have seen the story of the novitiate Maria (Julie Andrews) bringing life and song back into the lives of the Von Trapps and, in the bargain, winning the hand of the family's austere patriarch, the Austrian naval captain played by Christopher Plummer. (Austrian Navy?) Despite being ravaged by the press -- legend has it Pauline Kael lost her job as film critic for McCall's because of her review, "a sugar-coated lie" being one of the nicer things she wrote -- SofM is one of those rare films that filled moviehouses for months, with many people going back for repeat viewings. It was the date movie of 1965 (and to show how quickly attitudes changed in the volatile '60s, the next great date movie was The Graduate, in 1967). The picture's box-office success saved the near-bankrupt 20th Century Fox. It was awarded five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Mike Isaacson of Fox Associates (and an RFT contributing writer), who is as responsible as anybody for bringing Sing-a-long SofM to St. Louis, qualifies the picture as one of the hallmarks of American popular culture: "You have the nuns and you have the Nazis, which are these icons of such innocence and such evil." The film is chockablock with archetypes, most notably the contrast between the virginal Maria and the "worldly" baroness (which, perhaps, makes it not all that different from The Graduate and the Katherine Ross/Anne Bancroft dichotomy). There probably is no need for captions (except for the Latin parts), Isaacson asserts, because the score is so familiar, even revered.

The Sing-a-Long SofM phenomenon began at a London gay-and-lesbian film festival in 1998, which is only natural: A film as wholesome and earnest as SofM inevitably moves from family classic to camp classic. When Sing-a-long SofM moved to London's Prince of Wales Theatre, with audience members in costume developing a growing series of routines (when a view of the Alps appears, which is often, everyone yells, "Alps!"; when Rolf appears, everyone barks, "Rolf, Rolf, Rolf"), the experience became known as the Rocky Horror Picture Show version of SofM. One London journalist described the enthusiasm that grew in that small Piccadilly theater: "When Julie Andrews runs into view across the side of a mountain, the cheer goes up like when England scores a goal at Wembley."

Isaacson has seen Sing-a-long SofM in both its London and New York incarnations. He thinks it's natural the British came up with the idea first: "The British actually enjoy being sillier than Americans do. There's the music-hall tradition; there's the pantomime tradition of yelling out and participating. It's part of their culture. I saw that and thought this was never going to work in New York."

But it did, on New Yorkers' terms. "You can look at the film, and the film is unabashed in its innocence," says Isaacson. "You can either roll with that, or you can attack. In New York, they went after it." So when Maria picks up her guitar and asks the children what they would have her sing, the audience call is often ""Freebird'!" When Uncle Max tells the children he has a surprise for them, voices rise from the audience: "I'm gay!"

That's actually fairly tame, considering what can be made of the captain's demands for discipline, or that bedroom scene with the baroness and Maria while the pure governess is changing her clothes, or ...

It all depends on what an audience wants to do to SofM, whether they decide to render it insignificant or to leave it whole, if somewhat mussed. St. Louis audiences, characteristically, treat the film playfully, as one of their favorite things. On Saturday evening, there is even a note of caution provided by emcee Ed Coffield: "Don't say anything you wouldn't want Maria or the children to hear."

When an audience member enters the Fox, he or she receives a bag of props that includes flash cards to accompany "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" (a question mark, a picture of Maria, the word "flibbertigibbet" and a symbol that looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost but is meant to stand for a will-o-the-wisp -- these are raised in the air at the appropriate moments in the song). There is a plastic sprig of edelweiss, an invitation to the captain's ball, a party popper (for the moment when Maria and the captain finally kiss) and a swatch of fabric. (Remember? The captain won't buy Maria fabric for the children's play clothes, prompting the audience to cry, "The curtains, Maria, the curtains.") Directives from Coffield include standing and saluting whenever the captain appears; exclaiming, "Isn't she cute?" whenever Gretl, the youngest Von Trapp, does something cute (which is every time she's onscreen); and hissing the baroness whenever she slithers through a scene. The audience does this one better. Because every gesture by the baroness is accompanied by the lighting of a cigarette, the chorus of hisses harmonizes with a group hacking a mean smoker's cough. As it turns out, the baroness becomes more of a foil than the Nazis (who just get booed). When the captain finally tells her the engagement is over, the crowd joins in a rousing chorus of "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye."

Those audience members who know the film best come up with the most inventive bits, because their references are so obscure. Back in the abbey, for example, one of the sisters suggests that a cowbell be tied to Maria to keep track of her -- the folks who came with cowbells draped around their necks have their moment. The women in top hats and tails explain they are "bachelor dandies, drinkers of brandies." The women who look a little out of place in Mardi Gras bird masks justify their costumes: "We're absurd little birds popping up to say, "Coo coo.'"

But the special moment of the evening is provided by the man dressed as an Austrian frau, the precise replica -- as it turns out -- of the singer who receives third prize in the Salzburg Music Festival. (Remember? The awarding of those prizes aids the Von Trapps in their getaway.) When the scene takes place, he runs to the stage and bows right along with his inspiration.

Isaacson is concerned now that the next time the Muny does SofM, the production will be heckled. But then, that might be an improvement. Or maybe Magic Smoking Monkey Theater should tackle Sing-a-long Sound of Music Live.

Or, better yet, Sing-a-long South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

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