“Never work with children or animals”
– W.C. Fields
“You’ve got spunk…. I hate spunk”.
– Lou Grant
There are no animals in The Sound of Music but there are children; lots of children. And it certainly took ‘spunk’ for Carrie Underwood to choose as her first major acting role, one that invites, indeed demands, comparison to Julie Andrews and Mary Martin. I won’t claim she rose to the occasion. She didn’t. Neither was she as bad as social media would suggest. Critics complemented her singing and were, justifiably, underwhelmed by her acting. Facebook and Twitter, however, were the equivalent of dousing her in pigs’ blood. CNN said;
“The Sound of Music Live!” has become the new definition of “hate-watching”.
Carrie bashing aside, there is plenty of blame to go around for what was less-than-great about NBC’s The Sound of Music – Live! But there is a lot of well-earned credit for what was terrific too.
- Kudos to NBC for broadcasting a musical live. Thursday night’s presentation was the first of such broadcasts since CBS’ 1957 live broadcast of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella staring Julie Andrews. The CBS presentation, done at a time when the broadcast networks dominated television programming, was seen by more than 100 million viewers. By contrast, a paltry 18.5 million watched Thursday’s The Sound of Music – Live! That might seem disappointing but television has changed. 18 million viewers for a single program was a big win for NBC in the current entertainment landscape; big enough to encourage more such events.
- The live broadcast went off with only a few, very minor, hitches. An actor stepped on the train of Laura Benanti’s gown during the party scene. At one point, there was a close shot of a seated Underwood singing “Something Good” into Stephen Moyer’s (Captain von Trapp)
crotchbelt buckle. They cut quickly to another camera for a longer shot which wasn’t quite focused or positioned properly to take the handoff. I didn’t see any other stumbles. That is impressive given the complexity and size of the production.
- The production was pretty faithful to the original stage production. I was glad they included the song “Something Good“. Written for the film, it has often been included in revivals on stage. I was glad they did not include “I Have Confidence“. In the film it covers Maria’s journey from convent to estate but it is unnecessary on the stage. Also, it was not written by Rogers & Hammerstein. All the other music was from the original 1959 stage production.
- There were no musical errors and the singing was quite good.
- The children were cute enough to be heartwarming without moving too far down the sickeningly sweet scale.
- The costumes and sets looked great.
- The transitions from one set to the next were remarkable. There was one point during the wedding when a wall was flown as the couple walked down the aisle. It was unclear whether that was an error or just a wonky set design. In either case it was minor.
- Audra McDonald was outstanding as Mother Abbess and her rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” was a highlight of the evening.
- Christian Borle was very good as Max Detweiler. Max is a challenging role in this type of production since the humor in his dialog falls a bit flat with no audience to react to it.
- Laura Benanti played Elsa Schrader with great warmth and depth. Fans of the movie will see a stark contrast with the calculating coldness of Eleanor Parker’s performance. In fairness to Ms. Parker, it is probably easier to make Frau Schrader likeable in the stage version where it is a singing role. That character’s songs were cut from the screenplay.
There are fewer negatives in the production but they are significant.
- Carrie Underwood is beautiful and likeable. She has a strong singing voice. Unfortunately she has little experience as an actor and appears to have to no idea how to sing in character. The songs were sung beautifully but they sounded as if they were sung at a Carrie Underwood concert. There was no sign of ‘Maria’ in them. Sadly, the non-singing moments fell even flatter.
- Stephen Moyer looked the part of the dashing sea captain but his lack of stage experience showed. He came off as stiff and awkward. I never saw any real connection with any of his children. It is nit-picky to notice that he made no attempt to conceal his English accent. I would have been better able to suspend my disbelief on that had their been more emotion in his performance.
I liked The Sound of Music – Live! It is a ‘pet peeve’ of mine that critics choose to review a production based on what it isn’t rather than what it is. Much of the criticism is the result of the show’s failure to meet expectations that were inaccurate or unreasonable. Much of the responsibility for that must fall to the producers.
- It’s worth asking whether a live broadcast of the original stage production of The Sound of Music was the proper choice for this event. The term that is always used to describe The Sound of Music is “beloved”. That is certainly true of the movie. Most of the television audience has never seen the stage production. The demographics divide into three groups; those too young to remember TSOM in any form; those who love the movie but know nothing of the stage version; and those who are familiar with both. A production like this, if done well, has the greatest appeal to the third, smallest, group. The middle group is the largest and most likely to watch. But they are more likely to be dissatisfied simply because of the differences between the stage and screen versions of the show.
- Most of the audience has never seen this type of presentation before. Even many of those who understood it was the stage and not the screen version were surprised that it was done in a studio and not on a stage in front of an audience.
- I suspect the choice of Underwood and Moyers was based on their appeal and ‘name recognition’ but, in some ways, they were almost set up to fail. Moyers has no significant stage acting experience. Underwood has no acting experience at all. This weakness is exacerbated but surrounding them with a supporting cast that is so clearly better at what they are all doing. McDonald has been performing on Broadway for more than 20 years. She’s been nominated for seven Tony awards and won five. Borle has been performing on and off Broadway for more than 15 years. He has two Tony nominations and one win to his credit. Benanti has been a Broadway star for more than a decade and can claim four Tony nominations and one win. Her credits also include the role of Maria in the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. These Broadway heavyweights, rather than making up for the weaknesses of the leads, had the effect of making the principals look even more out of their element.
For those who missed it, the presentation is available online; The Sound of Music – Live!