St James Theatre, Auckland 1966
Maria, I’ll never stop saying Maria
By some quirk of fate, two of the biggest musicals of the sixties both had leading ladies called Maria. As someone scarred by a formative brush with the genre, I can report that this was not helpful. If I had a buck for every random who launched into song when I was introduced to them, I’d have been the richest traumatised kid in Pakuranga.
My mother didn’t have a musical bone in her body; tone deaf she was. Though she listened to the radio, it was more background fill than act of commitment and she never bought records. She did have a favourite song – Moon River. Sometimes she attempted to sing it while cleaning and, I’m ashamed to say, my brothers and I would gather like a wolf pack and howl to block out the sound. Yet somehow, despite contraindications, she loved musicals.
Oliver, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady. One whiff of singing and dancing in a film and my mother hauled me off to it. I was about four or five the first time. It was raining and we were late because of the traffic. By the time we got to the cinema, the only seats left were front row neck-breakers. Mum bought me a box of Jaffas, we sat down and I studied the ruched velvet curtains, feet swinging in space.
The house lights dimmed, the curtain rose, a hush fell and the assault began. Big shiny faces floated at me like soap bubbles, bursting into song without warning. Women flounced in full skirts and men seized their shoulders and sang into their faces. It was too loud, too hectic. It pinned me in place, like a G force test. Proximity of screen plus technicolour panavision multiplied by gigantic singing heads equals nausea.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they got personal. A man in a yellow suit with slicked back hair walked down the street, singing my name. He sang it over and over till it echoed off the walls. Invisible people joined in. He sang it loud, then soft. He walked towards me shouting my name and I shrank into my seat, wanting to climb under it and hide. He sang it so many times it got dark and still he was singing my name.
Eventually he stopped. Other things happened. There was a fight dance, someone got shot and they sang about that, then it was over. We stood and filed out. I gripped my mother’s hand tight. The crowd surged, the carpet was thick and I tripped on the stairs. Someone helped me up. The buttery smell of her perfume made me panic. She wasn’t my mother. I couldn’t see her anywhere. The perfumed lady smiled as she led me to the top of the stairs where my mother was waiting.
I was dazed with relief. Threading through the crowd, I felt clammy. My mouth filled with saliva and I tugged hard on my mother’s arm. I watched her make a quick calculation and abandon the idea of getting me to the bathroom. Instead she pulled me towards a rubbish bin and held my hair back as I threw up an entire box of Jaffas.
Starting my first job at seventeen, I made the grisly discovery that most suits in middle management were itching to out themselves as wannabe musical stars. Acapella, in the middle of the office, they would lay one of those show tunes on me the minute they found out my name. Usually I Just Met a Girl Named Maria. If things weren’t going so well How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? I half-expected the typing pool to kick in at the chorus. Unlike the Marias in those movies, I had no idea where to look or how to arrange my face while they sang at me. So I stood there having flashbacks to the St James Theatre, face like clay, eyeing the nearest rubbish bin.
Over time the genre fell out of fashion and randoms stopped serenading me, but the wound could always be reopened by Christmas repeats on TV. When The Sound Of Music cropped up I found myself strangely distracted by it, the way you keep watching a huge spider on the wall because you need to pinpoint its location when someone comes to remove it. Listening to the lyrics for the first time, I flinched at the unreconstructed mid-century claptrap: your life, little girl, is an empty page, that men will want to write on. The casual parceling up of a woman’s value.
Reflecting deeper on why musicals rattle me, I decided that my inner show-off must be a drab little repressed thing. Not unexpected, I imagine, given that our family life was entirely configured around the moods of an angry exhibitionist. I felt safe merging with the background. I got good at it. I hid up trees, under furniture, behind books, the curtain of my hair. If every facility casts a shadow then mine, weirdly, was the spotlight.
By some other quirk of fate, I had a daughter who turned out to be everything I wasn’t. Rainer starred in school plays, sang in bands, and yes, even hoofed it in musicals. She is fearless, outgoing, strengthened by attention. I enjoy the irony, watching from the crowd in the dark as she opens like a flower onstage.
To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light
– Carl Jung
Maria Majsa will be part of Stereo Stories In Concert at the Williamstown Literary Festival on 17 June 2017. Alas, I Just Met A Girl Named Maria is not one of the two stories she will be presenting with The Stereo Stories Band. Not this time, at least.
Tickets: Cabaret table seating sold out. General admission balcony tickets available.