PORTLAND — It’s been called everything from “affordable group therapy” to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac.” Call it what you will, but one thing is for certain, when the “Sing-A-Long-A Sound of Music” event makes its way to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Feb. 1, the hills will most definitely be alive.
Taking the concept of audience participation to a whole new level, this one-of-a- kind interactive experience has been packing theaters around the world. The centerpiece of this Portland Ovations presentation is a screening of the ultimate cult film, the beloved 1965 musical “The Sound of Music,” which stars Julie Andrews as the irrepressible Fraulein Maria. Audience members are not only encouraged to belt out selections from the score (“Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things”) but are also invited to appear in costumes inspired by the movie. So expect a sea of wimples, Lederhosen and “girls in white dresses in blue satin sashes.”
“I haven’t decided what I’ll be wearing to the ‘Sing-Along’ but I am considering brown paper packages tied up with strings,” says Maureen Duggan of Portland, a die hard devotee of the movie who has been looking forward to this extravaganza for months. Duggan plans to attend with a bunch of equally enthusiastic friends. “I’m sure that our group will include a nun or two, one little girl in a pale pink coat and perhaps a ‘Maria.’ And no doubt there will be plenty of folks at this event wearing curtains.”
Ever since Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 stage hit was transferred to the screen, the film version of “The Sound of Music” has attracted what might be described as an extremely devout following. There was the widow from Wales who earned her place in the “Guinness Book of World Records” after seeing the movie some 940 times. And an obsessed Oregonian sent 20th Century-Fox a copy of the script, which he had transcribed entirely from memory. For Duggan, who first saw the movie when she was 4, this kind of allegiance is understandable. “My near obsession with “The Sound of Music” prompted me to visit both the von Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont as well as Salzburg, Austria,” Duggan says. “There is purity and magic to the movie that made me want to breathe the same air that Maria von Trapp and her family did … Salzburg was a dream come true. When we first arrived in the city and the church bells began to chime, I was certain that I had been transported back in time and onto the set of the movie.”
Although it seems inconceivable now, “The Sound of Music” was actually considered something of a gamble when it went into production in 1964. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, which concerned a novice turned governess caring for a retired captain’s seven children, referenced the Nazi occupation of Austria. Upon learning that Fox was moving forward with the film, Oscar-winning director Billy Wilder offered a grim prediction: “No musical with a swastika in it can ever be successful.” Not exactly an auspicious beginning for a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and outgross “Gone With The Wind.”
Heather Menzies Urich, who played Louisa von Trapp, recalls that the film – which Hollywood insiders nicknamed “The Sound of Money” – saved its own studio. “20th Century-Fox had lost so much money on “Cleopatra” (1963) that the studio was about to fold,” Menzies Urich says. “So they had an important choice to make. They could put all of their eggs into one basket with ‘The Sound of Music’ or they could make smaller, independent-style films, which were starting to be in vogue in the mid ’60s and see if those worked. As it turned out, I think they made the right decision.”
Menzies Urich and Nichols Hammond, who played Friedrich von Trapp (“I’m fourteen…I’m impossible”) recently participated in a “Sing-A-Long” event in London, which brought back memories of shooting the film in 1964. Hammond, who went on to star as “The Amazing Spider-Man” in a ’70s television series, recalls that Andrews was as inspirational off screen as on. “Julie was a role model like no other,” says Hammond. “She was indeed a consummate pro but moreover, immaculate in her work and always perfect – with lines, dance steps and of course, songs. She taught me there is never an excuse for being unprepared.”
For the actors, the elaborate production numbers also stand out. “I loved doing the “So Long, Farewell” sequence,” says Menzies Urich. “There were a lot of people on the set that day because the word had gotten out that something special was happening on Stage 15 … My dad used to swing by 20th Century- Fox and pick me up after work. He got there early that day and was able to watch us filming that scene. I remember he was standing next to (director) Robert Wise by the camera. I could see the look on his face and it was just absolute pride. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Menzies Urich, Hammond and their five screen siblings have preserved some of their treasured memories in” The Sound of Music Scrapbook,” a limited-edition volume which includes rare photographs and a DVD featuring behind-the-scenes home movie footage. Hammond says that he and his fellow cast members were inspired to create the “Scrapbook” (which is available at thesom7.com) because they continue to hear from fans all over the world: “Perhaps the most moving messages are from people who say that ‘The Sound of Music’ was the first film they were taken to, by a much-loved grandmother or relative, and now when they see the film it reminds them of that person who is no longer here.” This October, the entire von Trapp troupe – from Liesl (Charmian Carr) to Gretl (Kym Karath) will set sail on an Oasis of the Seas seven night cruise to the Caribbean. For $1,199.00, super fans can mingle with the actors and participate in a number of shipboard activities related to the film.
Over the years, the actors who appeared in “The Sound of Music” have been asked to analyze why the film has become part of our collective consciousness. “Maybe this movie endures because we live in such a rough and tumble world,” says Menzies Urich. “In the movie, there’s an important message about doing the right thing. There’s a message that peace is better than war. It strikes so many different generations of people in different ways. That’s why it’s become a multi-generational event. With this one movie, there’s so much to appreciate and to be inspired by.”
The Portland Ovations “Sing-Along-A Sound of Music “event takes place at 7 p.m., Feb. 1 at Merrill Auditorium. Tickets are $17 and available by calling Port Tix at 207-842-0800 or visit tickets.portix.com .