. . . and other highlights from the Sing Along Sound of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, for which Kathy and I served as onstage host and hostess. . .
It is not easy to explain the Sing Along Sound of Music to someone who has never experienced it for themselves, but one way I like to describe it is as <<the perfect opportunity for non-rowdy people like me to get as rowdy as we ever get.>> That’s how it felt to me at my first Sing Along Sound of Music, which was in Milwaukee perhaps six years ago. I got the invitation from our friends Pam and Charlie Hudson, and at that time I had never even heard of such a thing- but I liked the movie and loved the venerable movie theater where this event was being held (the Oriental) so I tamped down any misgivings I had and went. (Kathy had something else going on that night.) And I had a ball! It was for me the emotional equivalent of Woodstock. . . minus the nudity, the drugs, the mud, the music that sounds like three electric guitars, keyboard, and drums are being run over by a train. . . and the thousand-plus other things that would have made Woodstock an unrelenting living hell for someone like me. But the similarity was in the amazing sense of Freedom that I felt that night as we sang along with the movie and shouted out all sorts of things at the screen, not to deride the film but to step inside it in an extraordinary way. And when you’ve seen a film so many times and know every minute of it intimately (or think you do) there’s this part of your soul that just cries out to do this, although you might not even know it.
So this is how it works. As you come to the movie theater, you’re given a little bag of gizmos which you are invited to use at appointed times during the film. (The hosts take about ten or fifteen minutes before the movie to explain everything and to get people warmed up, in more ways than one.) There’s a set of picture cards you hold up during “How do you solve a problem like Maria” (and you have to have pretty good dexterity to manage it) – some fake Edelweiss to hold up and sway to the beat – a little hand-held popper (sort of like a tiny firecracker that you hold in your hand and detonate by pulling a string- it’s safer than it sounds) which the audience is supposed to use at the exact moment when Maria and the Captain first kiss – and my favorite: a small swatch of fabric which you’re supposed to hold up and wave at the screen at that moment when the Captain has just turned down Maria’s request that she be given fabric with which to make play clothes for the children. As she slowly walks to the chair in her bedroom and sits down, the audience is encouraged to shout “the curtains, Maria! The Curtains! You can use the curtains!” And as she ever so slowly turns her head and catches a glimpse of the curtains and formulates her wonderful idea, it’s hard not to believe that the shouting of the audience didn’t have at least a little something to do with her moment of inspiration.
There is more general interaction as well. . . booing the Nazis, hissing the Baroness, going “awww” every time Gretel appears . . . and just about anything else that you might feel inspired to shout at the screen at any time. There used to be a program on TV called Mystery Science Theater 3000 in which incredibly awful science fiction movies would be shown, and down in the right hand corner of the screen would be the silhouettes of three aliens forced to watch it – who would make audible all the way through which ended up making the movie itself hilarious rather than merely awful. This is sort of like that except that the movie isn’t awful – it’s a beloved classic – and in this case, there are also all the songs with which you get to sing along. (When this production is rented, you are given a special sing along DVD which has subtitles for all of the songs but not the dialogue – and with the sound level pre-programmed so the songs play out a little more strongly than they otherwise would, to encourage more audience singing.)
Then there are the gestures that everyone is encouraged to do for “Do Re Mi,” and since Kathy does this sort of thing almost every day in her teaching job, she handled most of those duties. So for DO you hold your hands up to the side of your head like they’re antlers – RE is a sweep of your hand to signify a ray of sunlight although the gesture looks more like a rainbow – MI you point to yourself as in “me” – FA is when you pretend to be looking far into the distance – for SO you pretend to sew something – but here’s my favorite: I always thought it was so lame that Oscar Hammerstein couldn’t think of anything for LA except “a note to follow So” and have even tried a couple of times to write something better. But the gesture in Sing Along Sound of Music saves the moment because you’re supposed to stick one arm up and out as though you were Luciano Pavarotti singing a high note. Finish out on TI with a gesture as though daintily sipping tea – and you have all the gestures. And the way the song is sung in the film is perfect because it begins rather slowly and simply, but by the time they’re singing “When you know the notes to sing” and scrambling the pitches – or when they get rolling with that fast counter melody “DO MI MI – MI SO SO – RE FA FA – LA TI TI” you risk spending the rest of your life in intense physical therapy.
One final element is that people can – if they so choose – dress up in costume. You can do something normal and dress up like Maria or the Captain or Max or whoever – and it’s incredible how elaborate people will get – or you can go outside the norm and dress up like “brown paper packages tied up with strings” or (as a faculty colleague of mine did yesterday) “a brook when it trips and falls” . And there’s always the option of dressing up like nuns, which apparently is quite the rage when Sing Along Sound of Musics happen in bigger cities. In fact, the second time I saw the Sound of Music in Milwaukee (I went back a second time because I loved it so much) two guys dressed up like nuns and under their habits one was hiding a car battery and the other a full carburetor. This is one way in which Singalong Sound of Music is following in the footsteps of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, something which I know nothing about – and plan to keep it that way, if I possibly can.
The Sing Along Sound of Music presentations were a benefit for the Hope Council (formerly the Alcohol and other Drugs Council) and while the 2:00 showing was billed as something for the whole family, the evening show was intended for adults only. And indeed, you could really tell that the atmosphere was different in the theater and that things were going to be Capital R Rowdy rather than lower case rowdy – which is why Kathy and I didn’t stay once we had done our emcee duties the second time around, aside from (This is a three hour movie and six hours of “Raindrops on Roses” in a single day is a bit much.) But for the afternoon screening we had an absolutely wonderful time. Part of what enhanced it for me was that I had two faculty colleagues from Carthage there – as well as a Parkside prof I’ve had on my morning show – several friends – and the whole wonderful Heide family, who were all there to celebrate the birthday of the family matriarch, Katherine Heide. They knew this film well and they were all there to sing, and it was like having the von Trapp Family Singers themselves – times three – on steroids – in our midst.
Add to that birthday cake at the film’s intermission – not for Mrs. Heide but rather for the birthday of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (actually the next day) – and two charming and able hosts like Kathy and me (Kathy was more able than I was – I almost immediately said Singalong Messiah instead of Singalong Sound of Music in the afternoon show’s introduction) and the pleasure of seeing this great film up on a big screen again, and it ended up being a well nigh perfect way to be entertained. The only thing that would have made the afternoon screening perfect is if it had been crummy weather outside. It was the first gorgeous Saturday we had been given in a long long time and it almost felt like cruel and unusual punishment to head indoors, away from such splendor. But awaiting us was beauty and fun of another kind.
pictured above: At the evening showing, Kathy demonstrates “La. . . a note to follow So” for the audience.