In 1965 my mother decided to punish me for being a belligerent nine-year-old drama queen. She threatened to cancel our outing to see the brand new Technicolor release The Sound of Music. Bitch! I cried passionately at the dinner table and she gave in. I sang along with all of the numbers, imagined myself a rebellious young nun waiting to be swept away by the handsome man in uniform and I looked exactly like Julie Andrews.
More than 40 years later I still get tingles down my spine when the Mother Superior sings “Climb Every Mountain” or when the nun pulls the spark plug out of her habit. The Rodgers and Hammerstein score combined with iconic performances by Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and Marni Nixon to produce one of the most magical and memorable film versions of a great American musical. And the fuss is far from over. In 2005 Andrew Lloyd Webber began a brand new chapter in The Sound of Music saga. With the support of the BBC he oversaw casting for the hit television reality series How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Now Canada has the honour of having the first North American version of the show, hosted by gay comic Gavin Crawford, as a prelude to the Webber/Mirvish production opening in Toronto next fall.
As a regular CBC luminary by way of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Crawford is an obvious choice for the part. He describes the show as “a Maria massacre.” His razor-sharp wit and subtle quirkiness add a light, whacky touch to the proceedings. In an early episode, during a discussion of the need for great stamina in a part as demanding as Maria, Crawford looked at judge Elaine Overholt and suggested that stamina was something she always demanded as a leading vocal coach — especially on their last date. With the aid of Elvira Kurt and David Donahue watching from the wings Crawford keeps the action fast-paced and campy. A recent plea to TV viewers had him accusing potential non-voters of being “the you in adieu” if they failed to cast their all-important vote.
John Barrowman, the dashing West End musical lead, joins Overholt and musical conductor Simon Lee on the three-tiered panel, adding a bit of essential bitchiness. Apparently Barrowman’s offstage, off-colour language is delightful. An early episode, where he chose the word bitch for two potential Marias to say to each other, face to face, at different volumes, attests to his penchant for potty-mouth behaviour.
In a telephone interview Crawford says he finds the Canadian entertainment industry more accepting of gay comedy and that when he was in the US there seemed to be a great deal more concern regarding gay content. He says Canada has always allowed him “to do what I wanted to do.” So far the series has not approached any over-the-top limits, but as the competition stiffens and narrows hopefully we will see some sordid scenarios play themselves out. I’m hoping for a yodelling scene with inflatable goats.
In early talks with producers Crawford insisted that the show needed “a slightly arch element” and that a gay host was essential to provide both sarcasm and sincerity — archetypal notions of gay sensibility. “You love [the film],” he says as a gay man, “but appreciate how camp it is as well. Not only gay people, but we definitely as a people tend to look at the world with sarcasm on one hand and sincere love on the other.” He feels The Sound of Music is a classic example of something we can both laugh at due to its over-earnest demeanour and yet be emotionally tied to as we watch a young heroine resist the demands of strict social expectations and achieve her true identity as lover and nanny to a dashing disciplinarian.
Each week the show opens with dozens of Marias atop that iconic mountain ripping each others wigs off as they attempt to reign supreme. In a recent episode a lisping Maria was cut from the tally; if looks could kill both Webber and judge Simon Lee would be six feet under. The contestant’s lisp became a huge bone of contention for the judges and was ultimately the final straw despite attempts to keep her on the roster. Crawford feels that a lisping Maria, if she had the musical and acting ability, could work. Overholt put the young tongue-twisted ingenue through a series of exercises that helped her overcome her stage impediment. But in the final analysis Maria must possess impeccable diction.
During a celebrity bartending gig at the 519 Community Centre during Toronto Pride, Crawford was delighted, surprised and a little humbled by the revelation that lesbians love The Sound of Music just as much as fags. We boys do tend to hog the hoedown when it comes to gay icons. After all, as Crawford suggested, Maria does have “the most iconic lesbian haircut in history next to Sally Bowles.”
With the first few episodes under our belt, we polite Canadians have the opportunity to demolish five more Marias via online voting over the next several weeks. Though Crawford suggests that “the show is more about nurture than torture,” let’s hope that we get a glimpse of the odd and all too human need to squabble and cry from time to time. It is reality TV after all. And as the choreographer remarked during the first episode, we “have a herd of Marias coming toward” us, so we had better watch out. The hills are alive and it’s really frightening!