Last night, I watched something awful. And it wasn’t on TV. We’ll get to that later.
Reviewing the broadcast of Sound of Music LIVE! is actually pretty simple for me, so we’ll address that first. From top to bottom, we were treated to a gorgeously sung affair. Robust choruses, talented kids, dynamo supporting actors, and yes, even that lady with her name above the title acquitted herself nicely to singing in the musical theatre style.
It was a largely belty singing of Maria, but Carrie Underwood’s voice pleased me a great deal. Her country twang is largely suppressed, the instrument wears vibrato well, and her yodeling in “Lonely Goatherder” is legitimately impressive, especially considering she’s bouncing up and down on a bed. She selectively deployed her legit voice a handful of times, and that, too, was pretty solid.
No, she’s not much of an actress, but we all knew that going in. Color me relieved that the deficit was revealed through a lot of underplaying versus overplaying, which, otherwise, would have been genuinely cringeworthy. Underwood’s acting, for the most part, barely hops up to the line of “essential to telling the story” and relaxes there, though I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by how well she handled big emotional beats. Though largely flat throughout, Ms. Underwood’s acting performance actually improved in any situation calling for it to heighten. This includes her acting while singing and her near-breakdown with Mother Abbess at the end of Act One.
Mother Abbess, aka Goddess on Earth Audra McDonald, led an absolutely stellar group of Broadway veterans in the supporting roles. McDonald sang to the high heavens and brought that warm, supportive strength we all hope for in a mother (abbess). Christianne Noll was ring leader to a charming quartet of nuns for “Maria”.
Christian Borle and Laura Benanti make even more lasting impressions. His Max has a well-motivated undercurrent of fear dictating his decisions, which makes his turn at the end quite well earned.
And Benanti might just be the big revelation of this whole thing. Her Elsa is complicated, vulnerable, opportunistic, very charming, beautifully sung, and heartbreaking in its own way. I often lament that the movie version of Elsa robs the character of some of her dimensionality in favor of a less complicated triangle, and here, Benanti shows us exactly what we lose in that approach.
Among the children, Ariane Rinehart’s Liesl and Joe West’s Kurt were particular standouts, though I wouldn’t say there’s a bad egg in the bunch. Just that the two of them manage to bring degrees of humanity and a lot of skill to the table in their roles.
Stephen Moyer might have the opposite problem of Carrie Underwood. Here, he’s giving a sharp, barking, British performance of Captain Georg Von Trapp, which might seem a little actor-stiff (as opposed to character stiff) were it not for the clearly visible (character) discomfort that Georg is working against throughout the beginning of the play. Moyer does a very good job of framing everything bubbling under Von Trapp’s surface in a hard shell, as you can see strains of suppressed grief, anger at the conformity of his peers (there’s a nuclear-good beat between him and Elsa at the end of “No Way to Stop It” which might be my favorite single moment in the production), and genuine mournfulness during “Edelweiss”, seeping out at various times.
Vocally, eh, he’s ok. Von Trapp doesn’t sing that much. More important to me is the emotional connection during “Edelweiss”, which is there. I’m good with that.
The production itself is staged on a gigantic, beautiful soundstage. There’s a freedom in the scope that’s quite unusual for me to see. I’ve heard it said that there are a few filmed-live Twilight Zone episodes that share this kind of aesthetic, and I myself recall a bizarre made-for-TV Red Riding Hood musical starring Liza Minnelli that actually looked a bit like this. (Cyril Richard was the wolf in that…I know, right?!) In a stage production like this you yearn for applause breaks, and there’s a void after each number, no doubt. Maybe this is the way these should be, but it was jarring for me to adapt to it. There hasn’t been another one of these in my lifetime, after all.
That’s the crux of my outlook on the actual production, and where most of my criticism of anything originates from – are we better off for having this in the world? Should NBC have tried this, and do we want them to try it again with another show someday?
My answer is unequivocally yes. The pros here heavily outweigh the cons, Ms. Underwood’s flat acting didn’t make me enjoy her singing less (the opposite, actually), and the overall sound of the production makes me half-consider buy a soundtrack album when I have the chance.
Think of how many kids will see how cool it is that live human beings can get onstage and do Sound of Music, that it isn’t just frozen in time? Maybe it’s their first exposure to something like that. Peter Pan starring Mary Martin was mine, after all. These are kids who will think it’s the coolest thing ever. If they’re big nerds like me, maybe they’ll start comparing details between the stage version and the movie, and get curious about those changes, and changes in their other favorite movie musicals. And though they may eventually outgrow their conception of Carrie Underwood as right for this, the journey will nonetheless have started. At least that’s the optimistic view that I carry.
However, it appears that a very large chunk of our theatrical community was displeased last night, and quite vocally. If you were on Twitter or Facebook, you couldn’t have missed it – snarky comments abounded, hyperbole fired (hopefully), moral indignation about the existence of this, which surely must signal The End of All Things. St. Julie Andrews was invoked by multiple parties in the pursuit of protecting their dear childhoods from assault.
Yes, apparently a new production of a stage version of a musical which became a beloved classic film has the ability to destroy your childhood. More surprisingly, the presence of this version has the ability to make the old one cease existing. I should check my DVD to make sure it didn’t spontaneously erase when Carrie Underwood started singing.
I can’t begin to figure out where so much venom actually comes from, though I imagine it’s a combination of several things, particularly in theatre artists. We’ve already covered that people have a strong childhood connection to the film version, so I imagine that’s a factor.
People in the theatre community don’t seem to respond well to “stunt casting”, as it were. We’re in a hard game, and I think it strikes a primal nerve when someone doesn’t have to go through the struggle that we do. Underwood is hardly the first famous person from a different medium to get cast in a musical, and won’t be the last. But the outcry of disapproval, the combating of the potential “bright side” to that economic decision, and just the flat out meanness on display, that I’ve never seen before. Take this into consideration as well – the more successful the stage actor on social media, the less vitriolic and more pleasant the commentary. Go figure.
I get that it’s fun to make fun of things we don’t like. And I can’t criticize people for not liking something. That’s why they invented chocolate and vanilla ice cream, after all. But to this observer, it just seems so wildly beyond what the production actually deserves, and so primed and ready for deployment in advance of the actual production. Heck, maybe it even helped me. I saw the Twitter-rage throughout the evening before I watched Sound of Music, watching the reaction before the show, which I DVR’ed and saw after the fact.
Perhaps that’s the only way I can close a review of a made-for-TV musical that has already had its live airing. If you’re planning on catching this on DVR, video, DVD, or however else it might be released, it is nowhere near as bad as your friends said it was. Not by a longshot.
Sounds beautiful, under-acted lead, excellent supporting cast, awkward hybrid format. Lots of charm from the effort.
That’s what all the hubbub was about.
Aly B. says
Thanks so much for , in my opinion, is a spot on review. Much of it seems to have come directly from my brain out of your computer—spooky! I have felt similiarly dismayed and downright upset by the degree of hostility regarding this production and been particularly irritated by the vitriol coming from members of the theater community, of which I am a part. I completely understand the frustration of struggling artists with stunt casting—but like you, I didn’t feel that this was such an egregious case of that with a lead who despite musical theater acting experience has an enormous, well-trained, legitimate singing voice. Have you seen what’s been going for years over at Chicago on Broadway? Now that is rage-inducing for sure!
I also appreciated your recognition of Ms. Underwood’s strong moments as an actor. Although admittedly I am more forgiving of “young” actors based on my experience as a director and instructor of actors at all different levels of experience, but I also found her acting sollid at many points and was similiarly impressed by her work in the scene leading up to and including Climb Every Mountain. Audra MacDonald is a goddess as an actor and singer, however, that was two-person scene from start to finish and she was fed by her scene partner, Carrie Underwood to produce that glorious performance.
Finally, I was frustrated by my fellow theatre folks’ ability to recognize how enormous an event this was for theatre in this country. Theater is marginalized and has virtually disappeared from our mainstream popular culture. Like you said, what a fantastic sign that perhaps this trend will change course and that this production will spark the interest and passion for theater in whole new generation or geographical/social sphere of Americans. I suppose it’s often difficult for struggling or yes, envious artists to separate their own ambitions from the equation and view the positive effect of this production for theater itself.
I could go on and on but I won’t. Thanks again for this excellent piece. Here’s to live theater! Bravo Sound of Music cast and crew!
John Dellaporta says
That’s the thing…this is all we have to go on for the major networks being “currently” anything as far as live theatre goes. This is the first attempt in decades.
As far as the results, over 18 million people watched this, meaning there will be another one next year. If another chance to get it right is all that Sound of Music really gave us, then I will still say “thank you” to that.
That’s because the majors tend to be horrible at this at least currently. In the past live theater on TV wasn’t that uncommon and great productions at that. I like watching stage productions on PBS than I do on the majors.
I think the majors rely to much on the big spectacle. Game shows, live TV etc. it’s interesting watching similar productions on non U. S. Television. Not everything needs to be of epic, big budget spectacular productions.
Michael J. Curtiss says
Spot on. Last night’s social media snarkathon was a watershed moment for me. From this point forward, I’m calling it the Great American Carrie Underwood Hate Watch of 2013.
That is not a compliment.
Charlie Fink says
John, your love for theater is touching.
First, let me say anything that puts musical theater in front of a big national audience is a good thing. Musicals are wicked expensive, even in publicly supported non-profit venues (e.g $100 tickets at Signature), so only consegnati and older people can afford to see our work. Except for last night, when it was on free, primetime TV. Carrie Underwood has younger, more popular appeal. All of that is just freaking awesome for all of us.
BUT, let’s not drink our own bathwater. Carrie Underwood is no Julie Andrews, and the odd way the show was shot “live” often made it look and feel like a sit-com with singing. Her acting didn’t help. For all the great songs, the show itself has a few cobwebs; it’s long and it’s cliche. And then there’s the slightly cynical way NBC packaged the whole thing up, not that I blame them. Someone had to pay for it. To me, the overall effect was meh. I’m not going to watch this twice. So, unfortunately, I doubt we’re not going to see the musical theater canon get the same treatment anytime soon. This is not a stunt you can pull off very often without losing the novelty and event excitement.
But, like I said, it was a great night for American theater. NBC reminded them we’re still here, as they did with “Smash”, and for that we should all be grateful. Really. Thank you NBC. Their heart is in the right place, even though the show itself (and “Smash”) makes many of us (guilty!) feel a little cynical and snarky.
I barely watched the event, but couldn’t help but be miffed, too, at the vitriolic outpouring of snark during the broadcast. If we had been a live audience in a theatre watching the show, would we have turned to each other to declare loudly (so the entire theatre could hear) the pithy remarks that were made about Underwood, Moyer, or even Franz’s leiderhosen? When I go to a show, I feel like I’m there with the whole audience pulling for whoever is onstage – stunt casting or not. Was it because it was a free broadcast on national television that we seemed to hate it so much? Or is this the sort of back-biting commentary you don’t hear at after-parties, but DO hear in the car on the way home from a show? Are we really just Hyper-critical Snarks?
But it wasn’t theatre – it was a television event. It was a soundstage, not an opera house. And it was a keen attempt by NBC to take a look at ways we might be able to share in theatre in the future rather than just sitcoms. I say thank you – not the best evening of entertainment, but learn from the experience and please try it again.
Thank you for writing this.
The one thing from the Twitterverse with which I agree, and maybe this is partly what you meant by “awkward hybrid format” – I wish it would have looked a lot more “live” and “stage-y” than it did. There were numerous tweets wondering about all the closeups. I’m afraid anyone watching who somehow missed the fact that it was a live performance would have just thought it looked strangely different from the rest of television, without being able to figure out why. And I think we were all a bit cheated in that part of the experience.