As much as Mary Neely loved reproducing The Sound of Music song by song for Twitter, there were a couple times she had to step back and question what, exactly, she was doing.
Like when she realized, a little too late, that maybe borrowing a $2,500 drone that she barely knew how to fly was a bad idea. “I was so nervous that like someone was gonna, like, call the cops on me—or be really upset and come outside,” Neely told me during a recent interview. “I kept landing it and looking around and being really freaked out. But luckily nothing happened.”
Or when she realized that unlike other musical lip syncs she’d done, The Sound of Music’s numbers often include several singers. “With all of the other videos I made, even if I played multiple characters, it was usually only two people singing the song,” Neely said. “So I only had to actually do the whole song, like, twice. For this, I had to do the song eight times.” Even now, Neely’s voice drips with exhaustion at the memory.
“There was a moment where I was just like, why did I do this to myself?” Neely recalled. “Like, I chose this. I decided to do this. It’s not like anyone assigned to me this project… But I’m really happy that I did.”
Since March, Neely’s covers of various musicals including Les Miserables, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, and Grease have made her something of a rising star for hundreds of thousands of cooped-up theater buffs during the early weeks of quarantine. Over time, Neely’s videos grew a little more complicated, and she found a voice—blending genuine commitment with just a whiff of self deprecation. Earlier this month, after wrapping up her initial thread of love song covers in April, Neely came back with an even more ambitious venture: A full song-by-song cover of The Sound of Music to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. After meeting her $7,000 fundraising goal in one hour, Neely has managed to raise $25,000 and counting.
But that triumph did not come without some moments of delirious self-doubt—like that time I mentioned, when Neely realized that perhaps a brief, socially distanced drone tutorial might not be enough preparation to replicate the sweeping visuals from The Sound of Music. At first, Neely had asked her followers to help her buy a $400 drone of her own to use—a request they granted within the hour. But then a stranger who happened to work for Adobe offered up a more expensive model of the same equipment for free. Neely used the money from her social media followers to kick off the Broadway Cares fundraiser and borrowed the nicer drone instead.
After her brief how-to session, Neely said, “I was like, ‘OK, I feel like I can do this.’ But then I was in the hills of Silver Lake dressed in, like, a blonde wig and the drone is loud.”
The entire Sound of Music project took roughly two weeks to plan, shoot, and produce. But all the effort was worth it. Neely had never organized a fundraiser before, and being able to donate more than $25,000 is somewhat surreal. “It’s a testament, too, to the organization itself because they do such amazing work that I think it’s an easy sell,” Neely said. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS provides medications, meals, housing, emergency assistance, and other vital services to those living with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.
“I’ve never had such a positive experience on the internet,” Neely said of the fundraiser’s success. “I honestly didn’t even know it was possible. Everyone is so nice to me. It’s crazy.” The fundraiser will remain live for the rest of the year.
There’s something almost indescribably charming about Neely’s videos—which capture the theater nerd ethos in all its earnest, beautiful, at times ridiculous glory. Neely sings each song, be it a ballad or a rockabilly ditty, with gusto—sometimes from under a floppy wig, and other times while using a tennis racket as a guitar. She covered herself in green eyeshadow to play Wicked’s Elphaba. As all of us search for creative ways to stave off boredom, there’s something relatable and almost comforting about Neely’s scrappy commitment.
A Los Angeles native, Neely went to UCLA for theater school, interning with casting directors and working as a PA on sets. She booked a commercial agent during school as well, and has been booking commercial jobs for roughly seven years since—granting herself the financial independence to fund her own projects, which she writes, directs, and stars in. Most recently, she also played Felecia in MGM’s recently released Valley Girl.
The Broadway lip syncs sprang from a ritual Neely created to stave off boredom. A creature of habit, she craved any semblance of a routine—and wigs, Halloween, and themed parties happen to be a few of her favorite things. So she made a routine of dressing up every night around 7:00 p.m. to, say, FaceTime friends, or do an Instagram Live. (“I wanted to feel like I was going out,” she said.) After a while, that got old, but a conversation with a friend gave Neely her next project.
“He was like, man, I really wish I had like a short film to edit right now, because editing is such a good way to pass the time,” she said. “That’s when it just kind of dawned on me that I essentially have like a mini production studio in my two-bedroom apartment.”
Neely only made her early videos to entertain her parents and friends. She’d send them at night as her parents slept. “They would be like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best way to wake up,’” Neely said. “And that's literally why I kept making them at the beginning, because I had 800 Twitter followers. Nobody was really watching.”
Still, Neely posted a new video to her thread every day, drawing on her repositories of vintage clothing and her collection of nine wigs. (Before making The Sound of Music, Neely says, she added a few more to her collection, bringing the total to 15 or 16. (Neely does not have a Moira Rose-style wig wall. “It’s more of a day bed,” she says, “I just lay them on the bed and I don’t let my cat in that room.”) By the time Neely had posted her ninth or 10th video, she could tell something was happening. Popular Twitter figures including The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum were retweeting her thread and praising her videos. That’s when she decided to make them a little more complicated—like her Grease number. And when it came time for her grand finale, Beauty and the Beast, Neely knew it had to be something she was genuinely proud of.
But as she wrapped up that initial thread, Neely’s burgeoning drove of fans clamored for more videos. “I felt like people were metaphorically, like, banging down my door for more content, which I had never experienced before,” Neely said. “Almost like happy pitchforks—‘More of your videos!’”
There was only one show Neely could think of that she hadn’t touched, but loved enough to sing in its entirety. “I used to watch [The Sound of Music] every single day after school in second grade, until the VHS tape broke,” Neely said. She also decided to up the production value—hence, again, the fancy drone.
And now, Neely is reaping the rewards of her musical labor of love. The past few weeks have been the busiest of her career: A few production companies seem eager about making her musical feature; she’s had some “exciting” meetings with ABC, and met with publicists; someone even reached out on Instagram, offering to become her stylist.
“It's like, ‘Wow, everything’s coming together... even though we can't go anywhere.’” Neely said, seemingly as amused as she was bewildered. “Where are the makeup artists at? Hit me up!”
“I’ve been working for a long time wanting respect, and it’s been a lot of ups and downs,” she added. “There’s been a lot of really challenging moments, and it’s just so incredible and honestly kind of bizarre that it’s all happening right now [while] I’m completely by myself… There was a moment where I was like, is this actually happening?”
Opportunities aside, after all that work it’s still hardly a surprise that Neely is now actually ready to take a breather. When asked what new quarantine hobbies she might adopt now that she’s taking a break from lip syncs, she said, “I just want to like chill for a minute… I’m going to go on a lot of walks. I’m going to make food, and I’ve started like safely seeing some friends.” One friend, for instance, has constructed a balcony to allow friends to sit outside and chat while she remains inside the house. Although Neely isn’t much for bread baking, she likes to cook; soup was on the menu recently, and pad thai is on the horizon.
But before we go, I must know one more thing: Has Julie Andrews reached out about her take on Maria? Sadly, Neely has not heard from the actress yet. “But if the queen herself even… If she’s even seen them, she doesn’t even have to say anything,” Neely said. “If she's even seen them.... I feel like I can pack up and retire.”