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My inner Julie

Pauline Kael called it 'a sugar-coated lie' 35 years ago, yet people are dressing up by the thousands for the international hit Sing-A-Long Sound of Music, now opening in Canada. Globe film columnist JOHANNA SCHNELLER joins in, wondering why this is one of her favourite things.

Saturday, February 3, 2001

I am standing on stage at the Eglinton movie theatre in Toronto wearing my daughter's white flannel nightgown, which is two sizes too small and, I discover later, alarming when backlit, treating the audience to a good look at my big white underwear. At least it's nun-like.

To my right are four guys with brown cartons wrapped in twine on their heads. To my left are two 20-something women, their hair in pigtails, their breasts spilling over the scooped necklines of their Tyrolean dresses. Beside them is a sumptuous fellow in a turquoise Chinese robe, fluttering a fan. We and about 300 others, many dressed as either nuns or does (as in "a female deer"), are here to watch a movie we've all seen at least a dozen times: The Sound of Music.

Thirty-fifth-anniversary videos, CDs and DVDs have recently been issued, yet the print we're seeing is old and scratchy; its colour changes disconcertingly from reel to reel. We don't care. We've paid our $22.50 for the subtitles. The men beside me are Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With Strings. I, in my nightie, am the Maria who sings My Favorite Things. And this is Sing-A-Long Sound of Music.

The words to every song are projected onto the bottom of the screen (including this line from So Long, Farewell:"Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu"), and the audience is invited -- encouraged, required -- to talk back to the screen.

I'm the only one dressed as Maria (or Julie, as the audience calls star Julie Andrews throughout), and that's a surprise, since Julie is the North Star this crowd revolves around. Ask the herd of deer lined up to buy beer in the lobby why they love this movie. and they all say Julie. "She's so sweet," they say. "She's a role model."

"She represents goodness," says Diane, mid-40s, mother of two. A woman near her -- possibly the only adult here seeing the film for the first time -- snorts. "My mother always hated Julie Andrews; that's why I never saw this before," she says. "She hated her! She would always say, 'If a person seems too good to be true, usually she is.' "

I, on the other hand, stood in my closet for two hours this afternoon, wondering which Julie I should be -- the novitiate who trills "The hills are alive . . ." in her grey-striped apron? The post-honeymoon "I've had sex and now wear tight-fitting suits" Julie of the second act? Or the I Have Confidence Julie, who swings her guitar case and carpetbag so winningly as she approaches the Von Trapp chateau? That's my favorite Julie, but I settled on the nightgown, because I couldn't find the right hat.

Reaction to The Sound of Music has been mixed since the beginning. It won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Score, and has earned nearly $200-million, making it the second-most-popular musical of all time, after Grease. One senior citizen in Wales has seen it 900 times. But critics reviled it.

Pauline Kael, who was writing for McCall's at the time, called it "a sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat." Naysayers sneered at 21-year-old Charmaine Carr, who played Liesl, for posing as 16, and were delighted when Heather Menzies (Louisa) got naked for Playboy in the seventies.

But for those of us who saw it when we were kids -- unironic, nonjudgmental -- The Sound of Music got its hooks in, and held. We wanted to be Julie. She seemed like one of us. She wasn't sexy or glamorous; she didn't wear couture or makeup. She had zero wiles. But she radiated love. She spoke her mind to the Captain, and was right, and he adored her for it. That is a triumph not to be underestimated. She was the rare fairytale princess that actually rescues the prince. And what little girl doesn't imagine herself as a wave that can't be held upon the sand?

At the same time, we wanted to be taken care of by Julie. She constructed elaborate puppet shows and sang things like, "I will be firm, but kind." She didn't wake us by vacuuming before eight on Saturday mornings, or slam cupboard doors and then insist she was fine, I said fine! She didn't have to fight for respect at work, or piece a life back together after divorce, or cook dinner.

I mention my idea of Julie as ideal mum to Toronto psychiatrist and broadcaster Irvin Wolkoff, and he laughs for five minutes. "No, no, this is an Austrian story, with a heavy Catholic subtext," he sputters. "She's not a mother, she's a saint. Her name is Maria, get it, and she achieves sainthood by sacrificing her chastity on her cross-shaped marriage bed. She's second only to Saint Cecilia, who is the patron saint of music because she was raped to death by pagans, but died with a song in her heart."

Wolkoff goes on for a few minutes about how all the men in the movie are latent homosexuals, including Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), whom Wolkoff calls "a modestly benign narcissist, with obsessional tendencies -- that whistle! those uniforms! -- in denial."

"Of course, the elephant in the bathtub that no one will discuss is the death of Madame Von Trapp," he continues. "The family shows no trace of grief, there's no discussion of their loss. What Santa Maria does is respond empathically, allowing the kids to burst into tears, and finally express their guilt and anger. It's a highly successful, quick therapy. I always use it as a model for my work."

He's at least half-joking. "There are themes and subthemes in this movie for everybody," he says. "If you want to rejoice in the magical, healing power of love, you can. If you're of a darker turn, who looks for the funny truths in the basement, you can, too. The savviest people can cry; the sweetest can acknowledge the innuendo -- which, by the way, I'm sure the filmmakers intended."

I mention that I'd always figured it was having seven children in 11 years that killed Madame Von Trapp. Wolkoff laughs and laughs.

The Sing-A-Long phenomenon started at the Prince Charles Theatre in London's West End, which screens offbeat "event" films at reduced prices. The most enduring event movie of all, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, has played there for 11 years.

A year-and-a-half ago, the Prince Charles's Canadian-born owner, Ben Freedman, ran The Sound of Music for a week and handed out lyric sheets. To his surprise, it sold out. "It became apparent very quickly that this was not some small niche," Freedman says. He got permission from the studio and the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates to add subtitles, and has been luring crowds every Friday night and Sunday afternoon since.

The show has toured the U.K., racking up 150,000 ticket sales. It's been running for six months in New York, and sold out its two-week engagement in St. Louis. Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco are next, as well as Sydney, Australia and Oslo, Norway. It officially opens in Toronto on Feb. 23 (kickstarted by a gala this Wednesday) for a five-week run, then heads to Vancouver in March, and everywhere else in Canada by the end of 2001.

Meanwhile, the Stratford Festival is mounting its own Sound of Music stage revival this summer, starring Cynthia Dale.

"I believe we've just started to scrape the surface," Freedman says. "I see it going on and on and on and on."

The pre-show in Toronto certainly goes on and on. Our emcee, a sweet-voiced, filthy-minded "nun," instructs the audience to hiss at the Baroness, bark at Rolf the Nazi, and growl lasciviously at the Captain. "We hiss the Baroness because she tried to come between the Captain and Maria," she says, in a high-speed sing-song. "Which reminds me, yesterday at the convent, sister Mary Catherine came between Sister Theresa, and the Reverend Mother was none too happy."

The audience -- which hews pretty closely to the London average of 80 per cent women between the ages of 25 and 55, the remaining 20 per cent mainly children and gay men -- ranges from good-natured to giddy. In the row in front of me are 16 co-workers out for a laugh: five nuns, an Uncle Max, two Frau Schweigers (the bowing songbird who places third in the Salzburg Music Festival), and the aforementioned Chinese-robed fellow, who is dressed as "So Long."

I spy only one Nazi ("North Americans seem to have less of a sense of humor about Nazis than we English," Freedman says). On other nights people have arrived as Alps topped with shaving foam, or with snowflakes stuck to their nose and eyelashes. One British rugby team showed up in identical white dresses with blue-satin sashes. The costume-contest winner on opening night in New York was dressed half as Rolf, half as Leisl, and wrapped in a paper-and-wire gazebo.

Freedman's favorites so far were a Hasidic Jew ("A Jew, a Jew, to you and you and you") and a six-foot-five drag queen in a white-satin gown who marched up and down the aisles during the wedding scene, while the entire audience stood up and sang How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

"So Long" wins tonight's costume contest (the reason we're on stage). I don't even place third, which is no fair. Julie deserves at least third, I think. Perhaps I should have attempted "Wild Geese that Fly with the Moon on their Wings."

Growing up, I had a serious thing for Julie Andrews. I don't remember a time when I didn't know who she was. I was three when The Sound of Music came out, in 1965, just one year after Mary Poppins (to my mind, the superior Julie film). I have scratchy home movies of myself as Maria, spinning around in my backyard, arms outstretched. My most treasured possession was a life-sized Mary Poppins doll, whose clothes I would wear, and whose parrot-headed parasol I would unfurl on my front porch, waiting for the wind to carry me aloft.

When I was six, my family took a trip to whaling towns in New England, and the only thing I remember was that at one hotel, a card on the front desk announced that Andrews had been there earlier that summer to shoot a film. Every day I spent some time sitting in the lobby, in case Julie forgot something and had to come back.

Ten years ago, Fox threw a bash in Los Angeles celebrating The Sound of Music's25th anniversary. I wrangled an invitation. Six of the seven actors who played the Von Trapp children were there (Gretl has grown into a major babe), and at the head of the line, as ever, was Julie. At intermission, I ran smack into her in the lobby. "I spent my entire childhood pretending to be you," I stammered. She clasped my hand in both of hers and laughed sincerely -- okay, sincerely enough.

The stars have largely avoided the Sing-A-Longs. Charmian Carr came to the New York opening and sang I Am 16 Going on 17 -- but then again, her autobiography is called Forever Leisl.Christopher Plummer told Freedman, "I'd rather stay away." That's an understatement: Plummer has spent his entire career distancing himself from Von Trapp; interviewers are commanded to avoid the topic altogether.

Andrews also has declined. "She told me she'd go if she could be a fly on the wall," Freedman says. "But how could she?" Also, people would expect her to sing, and she can't; a throat operation a few years ago stripped her of her voice. So we Julies in the audience do our best to sing for her, from the soundtrack that plays on in our heads.

The screening starts promisingly. "What do we say when we see her?" the emcee shouts, and the crowd crows back, "Juu-lie!"

"Yes! Especially when she does something that changes your moral fibre forever!"

People are itching to sing. They sing along with the overture. They sing the Latin chant the nuns murmur as they go to Mass. Most don't need the subtitles; weenies to the bone, we already know every word.

But the jokes -- well, the jokes settle into a pattern pretty quickly. When the Captain, brandishing his whip, tells Maria that the most important thing in his house is discipline, everyone hoots suggestively. When Uncle Max says, "Gather round, children, I have exciting news for you," someone shouts, "I'm gay!" and everyone hoots suggestively. They hoot when they call Leisl "Sleazl," and when they sing "I must have done someone good," instead of "something good." Their capacity for hooting knows no bounds.

Apparently it's the same at the London shows. Torontonians, like their British cousins, are polite and proper as individuals. Give them permission to get naughty in a crowd, though, and the tops of their heads come off.

Still, the overriding feeling is sympathy, not irony. "For me, it's what the Reverend Mother says: 'When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window,' " says Sean, mid-20s, openly gay. "I know it's corny, but it's actually become a motto that I find really helpful."

"I love this movie because it makes me feel good," says Jane, 37, yet another doe, who borrowed a friend's 10-year-old to be her date for the evening because none of her friends would go with her. "It says, if you're a good person, life works out."

Jane first saw The Sound of Music when she was 10, and has seenit at least 100 times since. She even traveled to Salzburg to take the Sound of Music tour. (They sang Edelweiss on the bus. They thought it was a real Austrian folk tune. It isn't.) Now she has it on video. "Whenever I feel down, I watch a few minutes of it," Jane says. "What can I say? I'm a sentimental person. I like a happy ending."

Maybe it is that easy. Maybe the world keeps coming back to this sugary movie for basic reasons: The songs are fun to sing. The scenery is swoony. The Nazis lose. Maybe in our cynical, disposable age, we all like a guaranteed happy ending now and then. Maybe we need to believe that if our favorite things are humble ones (raindrops, mittens, schnitzel), and if we simply remember them -- well, then we won't feel so bad.

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