"Teeming" is a word with a claustrophobic feel. "Teeming with life" is the kind of terminology overheated scientists use when describing heartily grown mold on a petri dish, like the little spores are going to break out of the stands and riot a la fans at a European football match.
Leicester Square in London is teeming -- in a good way -- with a variety of people not usually imagined outside a Benneton ad campaign. Imagine all the tourist meccas you can think of taped together: Leicester Square would make that collage look like checkers night at the local feed store. It's the heart of what is arguably the world's biggest city, where all the arteries connect by Tube (subway) and pump like a thing on amphetamines. Tourists, locals, drunks, kids, every human species is here, and the hum is so rhythmic a mummy couldn't fail to jump into the human traffic, have a pint and sing in the street. It's pretty breathtaking.
On a Friday night, one alcove of Leicester Square is awash in nuns. Long, tall skinny ones, big, fat juicy ones, nuns in blue, black and mini skirts, transvestite nuns wielding guitars like the queen's scepter, nuns with a beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from their prayerful lips, nuns whose habits are made out of trash bags. It is a more staggering religious drag parade than you even get when the pope puts on his best prom dress and goes touring with Christ's homecoming court.
And while the Prince of Wales Cinema is not a church, there is definitely a whiff of religious fervor here. These devotees do not flock to some withered, old saint or dour deity. Their icon is far more stately, beautiful, appropriate. To steal from the '60s flick "Bedazzled," "The magic word: Julie Andrews!"
"Julie!" They scream it like she's the Beatles. Julie Andrews is the on-screen centerpiece in the weekly Leicester Square ritual known as "Sing-a-Long-a Sound of Music." They've taken the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and "Rocky Horror"-ized it. People come dressed as nuns, as goat puppets, as the Von Trapp children, complete with lederhosen and head scarves, even as "brown paper packages tied up with strings." One guy is dressed as an alp. No one is dressed as a Nazi.
The evening begins with drag queen Candy Floss, who sports a pink beehive the size of those fuzzy black hats the queen's guards wear. She wears a dress made of curtains -- with the rod still in them, slung across her shoulders like a milk maid's pail holder. After hauling gleeful audience members up on stage and asking how we're doing "up the rear" (in the balcony), Candy instructs us: We are to bark when Rolph, the Brown Shirt love interest, enters; hiss at the Baroness; and hold up plastic Edelweiss when that song plays. (Plastic Edelweiss comes with the "fun pack," which includes, for 3 pounds, a styrofoam nun and some Riccola cough drops.)
Most important, we are to sing. The lyrics appear in subtitle form, and everyone in a packed theater is expected to sing along with The Sound of Music. Every word. From "raindrops on roses" to "do, a deer" (this comes with a pantomime choreography we are to learn) to "Climb ev'ry mountain, ford every stream." It's billed as "The ultimate karaoke experience."
The Sound and the fury
You have not lived until you have been in an old packed-to-the-rafters cinema and heard a choir of boozy British freaks throw up their hands and burst into "the hills are alive!" simultaneously, with all the operatic ruffles and attendant emotion. It was like a host of piffled angels having the time of their lives, or whatever angels have. These angels would all be God's favorites.
Unlike "Rocky Horror," there isn't much throwing of objects. But while it hasn't gelled into collective yelling (yet), there is some Mystery Science Theater 3000-style yapping back at the screen. For example, when Maria confides to the Mother Superior that she's having heart trouble over Baron Von Trapp, the Mother Superior asks, "What is it you can't face?" And some smart ass shrieks, "Sex!" What do you expect from a crowd of tanked-up faux nuns? Grace?
And one of the best things about this culting of a children's classic was that there were almost no children in sight. In true Victorian fashion, they were seen (on screen) and not heard (drunkenly warbling along with Julie).
On a very fortunate note, the night I was there (and yes, I sang; what piece of marble could fail to join in a beer-stained chorus of "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" ), a film crew was documenting the proceedings for "Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music's" American tour. Be on the lookout. You'll curse yourself if you don't get to hoist a glass, put on a head scarf and screech about the alps.
When in England, one has to see Big Ben, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. But nothing could have rounded out a UK experience like watching the nuns smoking in the line for the toilet, arguing about the complex interplay of characters that yodel, and the exquisitely executed eccentricity of Julie Andrews cult worship. "Sing-a-Long-a" was, and Julie Andrews is, after all, True Brit.