My hills are alive
NEW YORK — So I was sitting on my couch, feet up, fedora tilted rakishly over my face, reading a copy of TV Guide tucked into an old Racing Form, when I got the phone call from the Monitor. I knew something was up - it wasn't my editor on the line, but my editor's editor. That meant something big. Real big. J. Lo and Ben big.
"Dauber, we need you."
I mumbled something.
"And take that fedora off your face. I can't understand a word you're saying."
"I've got something big."
"J. Lo and Ben big?"
"Bigger. Brad and Jennifer big." I let out a low whistle. "I got thousands of men, women, and children dressed in lederhosen converging on the Hollywood Bowl."
"It's a free country."
"Maybe, but they're paying to do it. And they're singing."
"'Climb Every Mountain,' 'My Favorite Things,' 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen'."
I had heard of this racket before. They called it "The Sound of Music" Singalong. Started up in London in 1999. Spread to the States. People watch the movie, sing along, hiss the baroness, boo the Nazis, wave edelweiss, that sort of thing.
"What do you want me to do about it?"
"I need you to figure out the lowdown on the whole thing. What's driving these people? What does it say about American culture? And can you get me some edelweiss?"
I started snooping around. I tracked down one of my old buddies from the war, when Leno and Letterman were going at it for dominance of late night. He spilled his guts after a couple of shots of soda water.
"The fix is in, Dauber." He looked around nervously. "It's the Silent Majority. They're back."
"How are they so silent if they're singing 'Edelweiss' at the top of their lungs?"
"It's 2002. Look at the midterm elections. The country wants good old-fashioned American values, and what's more old-fashioned and American than Rodgers and Hammerstein? And talk about unity. What's more unified than a bunch of people singing in harmony?"
"The appeal's not ironic, then?"
"It's a little ironic, sure. But it's Jay Leno ironic - everyone's in on the joke, so no one feels upset or offended. The only people who are made fun of in 'The Sound of Music' are the Nazis, and let's be honest, they deserve it."
Maybe my friend was right. Could 'The Sound of Music' singalongs reflect a conservative turn in the American populace? I decided to check out what an old acquaintance, Rocky Horror, had to say about the whole thing. I met him just after midnight, around Times Square. I had seen him a few times in college, but it had been a while since then. He looked pale and haggard, but that could have been the Goth makeup. "Rocky, talk to me about this whole 'Sound of Music' thing."
Rocky coughed into a black lace handkerchief. "I gotta tell you, Dauber, I'm glad you looked me up. I need to hire you."
"I'm on the job, Rocky."
"The whole singalong operation was mine. Every midnight on the weekends, lines around the block. Let people feel a little naughty with no harm done. Now this syndicate comes in, they take my idea, and run with it. I got nowhere to go."
"Rock, the country's big enough for both of you."
"Yeah?" Rocky said bitterly. "Is it?" He waved his arms around Times Square, with its neon brilliance. "This used to be a place parents warned their children about. Now it's got a Disney Store and a huge Toys R Us. I'm not pro-crime or pro-vice, Dauber, but it doesn't have to be all sweetness and light. I tell you, this 'Sound of Music' thing is the beginning of the end for edgy material."
Rocky had backed up what my other friend said, but I felt like there was more to the story. I needed the Brain. You know, the really smart, but anti-social guy the detective always goes to to get his answers. He couldn't get a date if his life depended on it, but he can recite the Encyclopedia Britiannica by heart.
Down in the bowels of the New York Public Library, the Brain was flipping through a large leather-bound ledger, stained with mold and crawling with silverfish.
He didn't look up when I came in. "Brain, I need a hand."
"You're here about 'The Sound of Music'." I didn't ask how he knew; the Brain just knew things, like batting averages for every player in the triple-A leagues for 1937, or where I had left my keys.
"Rocky Horror says he's been ripped off by the Silent Majority - that he started this thing and the Majority moved in and took over."
The Brain did something strange with his shoulders and his chin. After a minute, I realized he was laughing. "All that mascara Rocky wears has gotten to his head. It's all in the family, and has been for a hundred years."
The Brain looked up. "People used to play musical instruments on their own. At the beginning of the century, people would get together and sing in their parlors as one of them played piano. Take a look at how many old television shows had pianos or other instruments on them - even Archie Bunker played one, for goodness' sake. Now, significant numbers of Americans don't play an instrument."
"But everyone wants to make music. And it's hard to do that without looking like an idiot if you don't know how to play. There aren't many socially sanctioned opportunities for making music now, but one of them is with your kids, particularly with little kids. Are you going to take them to see 'Rocky Horror'? I don't think so."
"So it's a way to get your music ya-yas out while spending quality time with the little ones?"
"Basically. We're also in a strange period: some great musicals are coming out on Broadway, but first, ticket prices are so high no one gets to see them but corporate CEOs who've cashed out, and second, many of them aren't family friendly - how many parents have the nerve to take their 7-year-olds to see 'Urinetown'?"
"So it's not just a sign of the political right, or the ironic left."
"It's music lovers spending time with the kids," said the Brain. "Oh, and here's some edelweiss for your editor's editor."
I headed back to the office and filed my report. Then I made one more phone call: I've got my first piano lesson later today.
(Jeremy Dauber teaches Yiddish Literature at Columbia University. He is also a playwright and screenwriter.)