The Sound of Music (live TV)

The Sound of Music (NBC live broadcast)

12/8/13 (Sun)

When I heard that NBC was going to broadcast a live version of The Sound of Music, I was immediately intrigued. There hasn’t been a live broadcast of a musical in my lifetime – the last time, coincidentally another R&H show, Cinderella, was in 1957 – and unlike the Met Live films, this one is made specifically for the screen. I was very curious as to how they were going to approach this given the daunting logistics. This show was a good choice for an experiment on this scale given its name value and family-friendly content, and they gave themselves further insurance by luring a popular country singer, Carrie Underwood, to take on the Julie Andrews role. I had never heard of her, but the idea made sense if only to make a clean break from the movie image; the part was written in the first place for Mary Martin, who was vocally no Julie Andrews herself. They made it clear that they were following the stage version and not remaking the movie, meaning restoring the original ending, the song order and the stage songs (though I noticed they did replace the love song with the movie’s “Something Good”). The orchestra was prerecorded, but the cast would be singing it live. What an undertaking. I couldn’t watch it live because of the time difference but managed to find it the next day (with no help from NBC). The critics and Twitter crowd weren’t overly happy with the results, but NBC was laughing all the way to the bank, with sky-high ratings through the entire three-hour show including commercials (which thankfully had been deleted in the version I saw).

I was tremendously impressed by the scale and fluidity of the production. I had thought it would be on a proscenium stage, but it was performed instead on various sets strewn across several sound stages, with one scene dissolving instantly into the next with a flip of a camera. Scene transitions were beautiful and sometimes breathtaking, such as when the cast would advance through rising walls into new sets (house to church for wedding, house to concert hall, concert hall to abbey) to a musical accompaniment. While the sets could be set up ahead of time, the actors still had to get from point A to point B, so the direction had to be precise, which it was, and the camera work was extremely intricate and creative. It was a fantastic use of space. I liked when the Captain and Maria outside hear the kids singing inside and go join them, a good use of two sets that would be tough on stage. In terms of the physical production, this was the best made-for-TV musical I’ve ever seen, easily outdoing Gypsy, South Pacific and the Brandy Cinderella among the recent offerings. The live element adds immeasurably to the fun.

The big question in most people’s minds was how Carrie Underwood would fare in a role that Julie Andrews pretty much owns. The comparison is not pretty from any angle. But I didn’t think that was a fair question. Taken entirely on her own terms, she was a more-than-competent singer with her own style and came off just fine. The rumors were closer to the mark regarding her acting, which was flat and at times embarrassing. She seemed to relax as the show went on, or maybe I just got used to her. But in any case, she was not an all-out disaster in the end.

The Captain, a young actor apparently known for a vampire series, was pretty bland in a difficult role. On the other end of the spectrum were Elsa (Laura Benanti, a former Maria) and Max (Christian Boyle), who were super-good. Their two satiric songs, though in truth not as sharp as they want to be – compare “There’s No Way To Stop It” with the similarly themed but far superior “So What?” from Cabaret – were much needed as a balance against the sweetness and were delivered beautifully. I wish they had more actors of that caliber in the other roles. On the other hand, I wasn’t wild about Audra McDonald as the Mother Superior, and not just because of my lack of affection for non-traditional casting. She showed little sense of inner calm, reacting too much and even seeming angry at times. For instance, in “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”, her “She’s a girl” was chiding rather than gentle, a bad reading of that line for someone who’s supposed to be wise and compassionate. And her “My Favorite Things” seemed too eager throughout, neither well directed nor well acted. But then there’s that voice…! Her singing makes up for a lot of flaws. Nevertheless, overall I wish she had given more thought to the role. The other nuns were very well cast, with varied and amusing personality traits. They did a great job. The kids were all fine as well, especially Liesl, and Rolf did well enough.

The choreography with the kids was cutesy and overactive, including the “Do Re Mi” shenanigans and the kids in “Lonely Goatherd” poking out from under the bed and moving their heads from side to side in tandem. I guess it’s hard to deal with kids in a non-treacly way, but this was really by-the-numbers kawaii. Otherwise the dances were fine, especially the lieder between the Captain and Maria. The direction was unimaginative in terms of the characterizations, like Mother Superior and the overheated kiss between Liesl and Rolf. While it’s true that the story is close to operetta in some points and a bit hard to take seriously, such as the Captain’s instant transformation upon hearing the children sing, it at least tries to tackle real themes – expediency vs. principle (Anschluss), devotion to God vs. love of man/woman – and the director should have been more attuned to what nuances there were. Still, he got the big picture very right with the fantastic flow of the piece, so I guess he had his hands full.

This production wouldn’t last a week on Broadway with its acting and direction, but it overcame those shortcomings with its fresh and brilliant rethinking for a new medium. The network is reportedly planning more for the future: If they want stars, how about Reba McIntyre in Annie Get Your Gun or Bette Midler in Mame? Hugh Jackman is supposed to be doing an original show about Houdini soon, but maybe he’d be up for something, like Carousel. Whatever they do next year, I’m so there.

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