Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The hills are alive, yo

Julie Andrews reaches out in The Sound of Music.
How do you solve a problem like The Sound of Music?  The 1965 blockbuster (above, with additions) was sneered at by hipsters upon its release (Pauline Kael called it "The Sound of Money") to whom its creepy cultural underpinnings were all too clear. Usually Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all their corniness, were progressive in their politics; but this time, it was hard to make the same claim. Because they'd written a musical that purported to be about Catholics in Austria during the time of the Anschluss - and yet the fact that Hitler was Austrian and Catholic was somehow never mentioned. Indeed, the movie's subliminal message, that good Catholics resisted Hitler's advance, has been shown by historians to be preposterous.  (And the Austrians had no trouble later electing a former Nazi as President.)

The Sound of Music even scrambles what in many ways is most appealing about Rodgers and Hammerstein's legacy - their embrace of female sexuality.  In South Pacific and Oklahoma - in hell, all their musicals - the heroine is portrayed as a healthy sexual being with an appetite for physical love, which doesn't qualify her as a fallen woman. As long as sex goes hand in hand with emotion, R&H consistently counsel, it's okay (even their "fast" girls, like Ado Annie, are forgiven for their loose ways).

But The Sound of Music subtly whitewashes its romantic, as well as political, story.  Maria von Trapp was a 20-year-old orphan when she "fell in love" with the wealthy Captain von Trapp, who was twenty-five years her senior (not the seeming twelve or fourteen years between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in the movie).  It wasn't quite a case of "You Are Sixteen, I'm Going On Seventy," but given that the Captain threw over age- and income-appropriate women for his twenty-year-old, penniless nanny, there are undercurrents to their romance that, shall we say, the movie elides.  No wonder the Jewish, single, fifty-something Pauline Kael had a conniption when she saw it.

What probably drove her even crazier was the obvious fact that The Sound of Music is an absolute triumph of pop culture (and pop was her thang).  It's perfectly cast, paced, and produced, and visually it's one of the few movies you can really call "stunning."  The music - which is so harmonically simple it should be a total bore - is instead utterly charming and instantly memorable, and the lyrics are justifiably famous.  "This can't be happening!" you may tell yourself as you watch it, but The Sound of Music is a kind of an anschluss of entertainment, and as you watch it you realize - you will be assimilated. No wonder the movie has become embedded in the culture the way that only The Wizard of Oz and a handful of other family films have.

But it's also of course a totem of white culture - indeed, maybe no movie but Triumph of the Will is whiter.  And that has made The Sound of Music both cultural touchstone and target over the years.  Of late, however, the touchstone has won out over the target - in Moulin Rouge!, for instance, the bohemians all sang along with the title song sans irony, and now Doug Elkins has choreographed a whole suite of hip-hop and break dances to the movie's score in Fräulein Maria (at the new Paramount Theatre through this weekend).

The ridiculous contrast between these street moves and this whitest of movies is the show's big (though not only) joke.  Instead of lilting waltzes and lifts, the choreography hugs the ground, and darts here and there, sometimes defensively, sometimes seductively.  But if Elkins has taken The Sound of Music to the street, he's done it without really subverting (much less lampooning) it.  Indeed, although his scenario for "I Am Sixteen, Going On Seventeen" is about an aging queen trying to seduce a hung piece of rough trade, and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is set to the smooth moves of a naïvely posturing rapper, Fräulein Maria is clearly designed not to ridicule its corny source, but rather to bestow some of that source's golden-tinged innocence on the culturally disenfranchised.

And the trick works, pretty much over and over, because of course the primal drives of The Sound of Music - for love, and experience, and joy and beauty - pretty much drive everything on the street, too.  There is something actually like innocence in that old queen's hopefulness, and a touching faith in that rapper's belief in his dream.  Meanwhile other numbers, like "Do Re Mi" (below) and "The Lonely Goatherd" simply translate the original's whitebread rambunctiousness into a happily chaotic street milieu.

The kids krump out with two of their Marias.
Of course perhaps this means that the "street" is actually as corny as Kansas in August - but is that really such a surprise?  And at any rate, Elkins never tries to tie Fräulein Maria into a tight conceptual statement. He simply seems to let this or that song take him wherever it wants to,  while trusting that his signature style will give everything a rough coherence (which it pretty much does).  To be honest, the show does take a while to get going - the opening numbers aren't particularly inspired. But the choreography gets stronger as the evening progresses, and as the men take over more of it; I'm afraid only one of Elkins's female dancers, Deborah Lohse, really blossoms (as a hilariously hard-boiled "Baroness"). Likewise, of the (count'em) three Marias, only Joshua R. Palmer makes a clear impression - perhaps because he's the one who best channels the yin/yang of innocence and experience latent in the role. Martial arts expert Gui Greene meanwhile is nothing less than stunning as the leaping, flipping object of Liesl's affection in "I Am Sixteen," and Elkins himself exhibits a fluid precision as that dreaming rapper. The choreographer also appears in the one number that seems to deconstruct, a bit, its source - a sad, seedy little pas de deux (to "Edelweiss," which literally means "Noble White") between two men vying for an Austrian hat; somehow in its unspoken subtext we sense the whole sad history of the Anschluss. And somewhere, maybe, Pauline Kael is smiling.

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