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Just a Bowl Full of Sugar 

Whether you love or hate the original, Sing-A-Long Sound of Music has found its proper home

Wednesday, Feb 7 2001
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In a mid-1980s Saturday Night Live sketch, Julia Louis-Dreyfus played a college freshman home for Thanksgiving. Dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and full of newfound contempt for her parents' lifestyle, money, and morals, she screamed, "I won't eat your bourgeois turkey!" at her poor, bewildered folks. My own familial repudiation came later, the summer after my sophomore year. "You know," I said casually one afternoon to several family members, "The Sound of Music really isn't a very good movie." Had I said "The Pope is in league with Satan," the fury could not have been as great or the condemnation as swift. "How can you not like The Sound of Music?" my sister cried out in real distress. As I explained my reasons, most of them cribbed from film reviewer Pauline Kael, emotions flared and tensions escalated. Finally my father could take no more. "Look, Joe," he said, "I lived through World War II. [He was 7 when it ended.] I know what it was like."

It was like The Sound of Music?

As a kid I did love the damn thing. (I loved every movie I saw.) And I knew this film was important: It had an intermission. But even then I was perplexed that Captain von Trapp felt Maria was better wife material than the Baroness, Elsa Schraeder. In Eleanor Parker's Elsa, there was the potential for sex (or romance, as I would have termed it then), even if she was a bitch. Julie Andrew's Maria had no such possibilities: Clean-scrubbed and asexual, she'd be a governess until the day she died.

Released in 1965 and based on the 1959 Broadway show of the same name, The Sound of Music was lavishly lauded in many corners as the highest possible achievement in Hollywood cinema. The notable dissensions were mainly from New York critics: Judith Crist, Bosley Crowther, and, perhaps most infamously, Kael, who wrote, "Whom could it offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel." The review led to her being fired from McCall's magazine after angry readers demanded her ouster.

Julie Andrews herself was reluctant to do the movie. Julia Hirsch, a one-time story editor for director Robert Wise, has written that after signing on, Andrews said to Wise, "How are you going to get all the sugar out of this movie?" Wise replied, "My dear, you and all the rest of us are thinking the same way." Ach. Julie, Bob, look -- whether it's powdered, granulated, or cubed, it's still sugar.

But after 35 years of being treated as a cinematic classic, the movie has spawned Sing-A-Long Sound of Music. Instead of sitting quietly and crying at the appropriate moments, audiences are boisterously cracking jokes, singing out loud, and making fun of the movie even as they enjoy the schmaltz. Hallelujah. And in San Francisco it will be presented where it has always belonged: at the Castro Theater.

Incredibly, Sing a Long Productions originally thought the Castro would be inappropriate -- that the movie should be shown in a more theatrical setting like the Herbst Theater. Castro Program Director Anita Monga -- who got calls from potential ticket-buyers immediately after the publication of Anthony Lane's famous New Yorker article about the London show -- reports that Sing a Long "was nervous that it would be seen as exclusively a gay/drag thing. It took a lot of talking to convince them otherwise." Sing-A-Long producer Tom Lightburn was also concerned about the Castro's ticket-handling capabilities, as seats will be sold on a reserved basis for Friday and Saturday performances. He's taken some heat for the decision to show there, receiving e-mail from people concerned that Sing-A-Long at the Castro will mock not only a treasured family film but also the Catholic Church. (As if the film's saccharine, syrupy view of Catholicism wasn't more harmful to the faith than any number of queens in nun-drag.)

Monga expects the show to be a huge hit -- hell, everyone expects it to be a huge hit -- even though she's no fan of the original. "There are no grown-ups in this movie," she states, but she doesn't go far enough: There are no children in it, either -- only the sentimental lies that adults tell about children.

But who cares about any of that in a theater full of happy people in dirndls, lederhosen, and nuns' habits? If you've read Lane's article, you already know about folks going to the show clothed all in yellow -- as "Ray, a drop of golden sun." But you may not know about theater-goers dressed like Hasidim, trying to pass themselves off as "A Jew, a Jew, to you and you and you." Local actors Trauma Flintstone and Connie Champagne (both of whom were terrific in the recent Tuck 'n' Roll Players production, Club Inferno) will host each showing. They'll ensure that the audience knows how to use the giveaway "fun pack" and will conduct the costume contest and lead the booing and cheering. (Previous audience members who have responded to Uncle Max's declaration, "Attention everyone! I have an announcement to make! Surprise, surprise," by screaming, "I'm gay!" were not following the official Sing-A-Long script.)

Even those who revere The Sound of Music can enjoy the irreverent fun. Still, Charmian Carr -- who played Liesl in the film and who will attend both the Feb. 8 benefit screening (for Frameline, the gay and lesbian film and video organization) and the regular run's opening night -- disagrees that the event is irreverent at all. She's received plenty of letters from writers who are upset at the production, but, she says, "Those people haven't been to it." She's attended the screenings in many cities and enjoys it "more and more each time." Carr explains, "The costumes are so wonderful, and it is so ingenious what people come up with. If people didn't love this movie so much, they wouldn't bother." She's right, but there will be healthy quantities of irony subverting the devotion.

The ebullient Ms. Carr and I do agree on one thing. As she says, "I know in my heart that [the] San Francisco [production] is going to be my favorite." Of course it will. Whether you love or hate The Sound of Music -- a bourgeois turkey if ever there was one -- Sing-A-Long Sound of Music at the Castro will be a blast.

About The Author

Joe Mader

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