The Edge of 17
The Sound of Music's Charmian Carr Is Forever Liesl
From Ponce de Leon to the inventors of Propecia and Oil of Olay, humans have struggled to discover the secrets of eternal youth. Ironic, then, that the essence of staying young forever should be unearthed by a woman merely 21 years young, muddy and soaked to the bone, as she crawls through an open window. It is the spring of 1964. The woman is Charmian Carr, and the magical time portal/ window is on the 20th Century Fox sound stage for the film The Sound of Music, the story of the wayward nun, Maria, who is sent to work as governess for the seven children of a prominent Austrian naval captain.
There is a flash of lightning. Liesl enters though the window. Her dress is wet and smudged with dirt. She starts to tiptoe to the hall door. Maria sees her out of the corner of her eye, but continues.
Maria: God bless the Reverend Mother, and Sister Margaretta, and everybody at Nonnberg Abbey. And now, dear God, about Liesl -- (Liesl stops and gives Maria a startled look)
-- Help her to know that I am her friend, and help her to tell me what she's been up to.
Liesl: Are you going to tell on me?
Little did Carr know that crawling through a window would amount to such a rite of passage or that the character she was portraying, Liesl Von Trapp -- the strong yet willowy eldest Von Trapp daughter, a principal character in The Sound of Music (TSOM) -- was one with whom she would be intrinsically linked for the rest of her life. "Originally, I kept thinking that the popularity [of TSOM] will die down," Carr says in a phone interview from her home. "I thought at the five-year anniversary, 'Well, this will be it ...' Then, of course, the 10-year anniversary came along, and it was still going strong, and then 15 years ... Finally at the 25th anniversary, I realized that TSOM will be going on forever and ever, and that I will be forever Liesl in the public eye.
"I finally accepted the fact that I am Charmian, but I'm Liesl too."
Carr might as well get comfortable in those lederhosen, because The Sound of Music is experiencing yet another rebirth, one of the many seen by the movie, the most popular musical in film history. This year marks its 35th anniversary, and while the only fanfare offered by the studio is in the form of the August DVD release, die-hard fans of the film (who are legion -- the film is estimated to have been seen by more than one billion people) are taking matters into their own hands.
In a twisted fit of "Do-Re-Mi" ingenuity, some Sound of Music obsessives in London came up with the perfect merger of high camp and utter devotion: The Sound of Music: Sing-a-long. This week, the spectacle makes an appearance in Austin (see "The Sound of Music: Sing-a-Long," p.66) as a benefit for Project Transitions and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. While presented entirely by a local cast and crew, the event will be similar in spirit and form to its UK counterpart -- part drag show, part Rocky Horror audience participation, and 100% raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
"It's truly incredible from what I understand," Carr, who will be in attendance, says enthusiastically. While having never experienced the sing-a-long herself, Carr gets giddy describing what her friend Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, tells her about the night he went. "He saw it in London in a completely packed house. They have these people who dress up as characters from the play, and they give awards for the best costume. He said the night he was there, there were three men that won dressed up as the Alps; they had shaving cream all over them. The audience boos and hisses at the Nazis and cheers on the family. Everybody sings as loud as they can, and he said it was a wonderful experience."
Not unlike Trekkies, the fans of TSOM range in intensity -- from those soaking in the film's baptism of innocence to those who just enjoy the silly improbability of musicals (and revel in their irony), to those, like yours truly, who skitter along the fine line between both. Carr acknowledges this, understanding that not every fan of the film takes a cotton to its somewhat saccharine tone. "I just deal with it," she says with a laugh. "A lot of the critics and the people who make fun of it I dismiss, realizing that they are so in the minority." Which doesn't mean that Carr lacks a sense of humor about it all. For the most part, however, fans she has encountered have been from the first group of true devotees. In fact, Carr has written a book about her experiences. "So many people want to know more about the film, about the experience of it. It was too much to write back in a letter to all the different fans, so part of the reason I wrote the book was to answer questions."
Forever Liesl is a document not only of Carr's film and promotional tour experiences but also of her personal journey finding her way out of Liesl and back again. It's an interesting take on fact, fantasy, and fictionalized biographies; appropriate, since at the very core of TSOM lies the fact that it is an embellished account of the story of the Trapp Family Singers, the group which the Von Trapp family came to be when they left their native Austria at the beginning of World War II. The first half of the volume ends with the wrap of the film. The second half reveals (in her words) that her "association with Liesl was just beginning."
While the memoir has taken it a bit on the chin for being too sweet -- don't expect any dish here -- this fact hasn't affected sales, paralleling the film that inspired it. "I wanted my book to be respectful and gracious, because that was my experience with the film. TSOM has affected so many people in so many positive ways that I didn't want to destroy that," relates Carr.
Forever Liesl is loaded with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and factoids, like that the real Maria Von Trapp appears in cameo during "I Have Confidence," and that Nick Hammond (Friedrich) grew six inches during the shooting, and that Kymmie Karath (Gretl) was a "five-year-old going on 42" who remembers "playing gin rummy with the Nazis" between takes. Interspersed among these memories are gushing accounts from fans the world over whose lives have been touched by the story of the rebellious nun.
"On my booksignings," Carr says, "I meet people from every generation. I had one four-year-old come up to me to sign her book. She said she had seen the film 'one hundred million times' -- so cute! -- then she proceeded to sing the entire '16 Going on 17' song [Liesl's signature number]. I thought it was incredible that a four-year-old was so impressed with Liesl in our generation now, that it just confirms the fact that TSOM will go on. It just seems to go from generation to generation with as much love and warmth as it originally did."
Carr's film career tapered off when she focused her energies on becoming a full-time mom. She is currently an interior designer with her own firm (Charmian Carr Designs). Her TSOM legacy, however, continues to follow her, even into that field. In fact, one of her most famous clients is a huge fan of Liesl. His name is Michael Jackson.
"Wow! You were the mannequin room lady!" I blurted upon learning of Carr's work with the self-annointed King of Pop. Jackson wanted a room that looked like a party was going on, so Carr complied by gathering a room full of mannequins and dressing them in party attire. As we discussed her friendship with Michael, uncharacteristically, she let down a bit of reserve.
"I think it's a shame what's happened to him and his career," Carr states frankly. "He was so talented and so adorable before the face work. It's upsetting to me to see him now. I had a wonderful relationship with him. I worked with him for six and a half years (from 1981-87) at the height of his career -- Thriller had come out.
"He was terrific," she remembers. "He was very kind to me, very caring. We became good friends. He was over for dinner very often. We would go to Disneyland. He took my two daughters and me on tour with him, when he did the Victory tour. I haven't seen him in years now." Her words drop off wistfully.
It seems fitting that the woman who portrayed Liesl, seen by so many as the the ideal teenager -- "innocent and naive" -- in the ideal family, would befriend the man known as much for his childlike fantasy world as for his music.
But the burden of Liesl must be somewhat aggravating. I asked Charmian if Forever Liesl was her catharsis. "Yes. And it was not as easy as I thought it would be. It was a lot of hard work, very emotional at times. Sure, it's about the making of TSOM, but it's also about my life," she says. Her frank descriptions of the pain of living with an alcoholic mother and absent father more than make up for the sweetness and light throughout the rest of the book. In fact, these revelations provide poignant insight to the pleasant escapism provided by life as Liesl.
Liesl's scene in the gazebo with boyfriend Rolf is the setting for the song which, in retrospect, sums up much of what this character represents to her many fans. "16 Going on 17" is a song about transition, about growing up, about accepting responsibilities and limitations in life. Knowing that we live in a much less innocent world than the one portrayed through the dewy lens of that showtune, I asked Charmian if she had encountered any fans who ... well, appreciated Liesl more on, let's say a prurient level.
She pauses and then answers, "Mostly, fans have been gracious. Sometimes," she pauses again. "Sometimes there are some weird people asking ... you know, kind of involved detailed kinds of questions ... but very few. Most have been very positive."
Not wanting to reside in that former category, I change the topic to one that is more happy and gay: Is she aware of the huge gay following that TSOM has? That it is in the gay lexicon? How does she feel about Liesl and possibly herself being a lesbian role model, queer cultural icon, or whatever?
This time she didn't pause at all. "I think it would feel wonderful!"
"Do you still sing?" I ask near the end of the interview. "Yes, privately, sometimes publicly." She giggles, sounding not unlike her teenage alter ego. "I've done a lot of singing on the book tour. I'm always asked to sing '16 Going on 17.'"
"That's gotta be nerve-racking," I commiserate, then I take a chance: "Are you going to sing it at the sing-a-long?"
She laughs. "They haven't asked me, but I might get into the spirit of things, and get up there and ..."
"Well, I'm asking you!!" I interrupt.
"Maybe," she teases, "I should change the ages, but it doesn't rhyme."
"16 Going on 57!" I say, regretting it as soon as the words pass from my lips.
"There!" she says with confidence, easing my embarrassment. I can almost hear her grinning over the phone. "That rhymes perfectly!"