It stands to reason that the more directly a technology or business addresses a primal human instinct, the better it should do. Farmers, grocers and restaurants exist because we have to eat; our need for sleep necessitates bed manufacturers as well as hotels.
But some of our deep-seated urges are far more subtle. In 1971, Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue discovered that a device he had invented unleashed a human drive that remains, in many places, one of the last taboos of polite conversation. It's the primal impulse to sing along to pop songs in the shower. Thus, karaoke was born.
Flash forward 28 years. During a gay-and-lesbian film festival, London-based impresario Benjamin Freedman screens the classic film The Sound of Music with a twist: The showing is billed as a sing-along. To everyone's surprise, what was intended originally as a one-shot experiment in camp—think Rocky Horror but in wimples, jackboots and lederhosen—quickly takes on a life of its own.
Based on demand, the run is extended—and extended again. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, historically one of the most proactive firms in showbiz when it comes to protecting its creators' legacy, takes an interest in what's being done to its musical. Ultimately, Mary Rodgers, composer Richard Rodgers' daughter, shows up for a performance and gives her blessing.
Twelve years later, the experience—part communal karaoke, part audience costume show—has been applied to seven films including Hairspray, Grease and High School Musical, in hundreds of performances in Australia, Holland, Sweden, Canada, the U.S. and the UK.
Friday night, Sing-a-long Sound of Music comes to Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre. After a genial master of ceremonies leads the preshow fashion competition—and those all-important vocal warmups—the lights will dim, the film will start and subtitles for every lyric will be projected throughout the movie.
"I had no expectations at all, at the start," Freedman recalled during our interview last week. "But as we sat there, you could just feel something in the room. I mean, we were laughing to begin with. But the movie gets to you after that. It's survived 45 years for a reason."
Freedman noted the lack of rules for audience participation. "There's no need; we've never had to throw people out. We've found that the audience sort of regulates itself; people come to The Sound of Music because they have an affection for it, and they listen to their fellow audience members."
Still, there are certain conventions. Audience members may not need to be coached to cheer Julie Andrews' Maria or hiss Eleanor Parker whenever her icy baroness appears on screen. But each will be given a goodie bag containing supplies to make certain moments in the film more ... interactive.
"I think it's to Rodgers and Hammerstein's enormous credit that they got it," Freedman reflected. "We're not making fun of The Sound of Music. I equate the show to sort of the best man or best woman's speech at a wedding. The audience is celebrating something very important to them: the memories of the child inside every adult."
Not that some of the costumes don't get a bit out of hand at times. To the inevitable Nazis, nuns (pregnant and in drag) and kids bedecked in dirndls fashioned from chintz, add an assortment of brown paper packages, blue satin sashes and other Favorite Things. Visual puns abound. "One came as a gazebo," Freedman chuckled. "The trouble people go to—and the imagination they express—when they dress up is a constant amazement."
"People initially said, 'Oh, it's a family show, you'll only do afternoons.' They were wrong. It isn't just a family show; ultimately, it's about letting your hair down a bit. There are nuances to the film that kids don't necessarily get."
But the big kids will, raising voices and glasses to join in the fun, Friday night at Koka Booth Amphitheatre.