Monday, December 09, 2013

The Sound of (Live) Music

It has been four days since NBC presented a live performance of The Sound of Music, time enough for all the critics to lambast Carrie Underwood because she isn’t Julie Andrews and to lament the play’s cloying sentimentality.  Enough, already.  Someone should speak up for the production, which, despite a few shortcomings, was a high-quality rendition of a high-quality musical.  And Carrie Underwood should hold her head high; she was an excellent Maria.  As a matter of fact, hearing that the network was planning to air a live performance, I sensed a disaster in the wings, but I needn’t have worried. NBC pulled it off with flying colors.

First, the material:  This Sound of Music was not based on the movie, which everybody has seen, but on the Broadway musical, which relatively few people now alive have seen. That play opened on November 16, 1959, ran for 1433 performances, and won mostly rave reviews, especially for Mary Martin, its star. (Theodore Bikel was the baron.) At least two of the songs were not used in the 1965 blockbuster movie: but were fortunately resurrected for the NBC production: “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?”  For the broadcast, the producers also decided to use one song written specially for the movie:  the lovely “Something  Good.”  

As I said, most critics loved the play. Frank Aston of the World-Telegram called it “The loveliest musical imaginable,” and Richard Watts of the Post wrote that the “show has a warm-hearted, unashamedly sentimental, and strangely gentle charm that is wonderfully endearing.” The raves are worth noting, because the movie, so beloved by the public, has become a favorite piñata of the critics, who routinely savage its sentimentality (The Sound of Mucus).

The cast:  It was up to Carrie Underwood to carry the production, just as it was up to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, and Ms Underwood did far better than one could reasonably expect, given her limited dramatic experience. She looked right, and that alone put her on second base. Add a fine voice, and that put her on third.  There was not a flat note (none that I could detect, anyway) and not a jarring  line or reaction. No, she’s not Julie Andrews (who is?), but remember that if Julie flubbed a line or didn’t hit a note right, why, they simply shot it over, as many times as necessary, until it was perfect.  As for Mary Martin, she was 46 (!) when she played Maria, and she had decades of stage experience behind her.

The supporting cast was excellent, notably including Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader.  Laura is a real singer and played the role with warmth and wit. (Eleanor Parker, the movie’s Frau Schrader, was edgier and did no singing.) Christian Borle was a fine Max Detweiler (the impresario), particularly when singing with Laura Benanti, and the children were adorable – and good singers, to boot. If there was a weak link it was the baron. Stephen Moyer was stiff and sang poorly. He looked the part, and that must have landed him the job.  But that only got him to second base, where, alas, he died.  Audra McDonald, as the Mother Superior, was formidable, as she always is.

The interior sets were well executed.  As for the exteriors (the Austrian Alps), they were embarrassingly bad, although I don’t know how they could have finessed that except by bringing in video of the real Alps or resorting to computer graphics – both of which would have brought howls from viewers who were promised a live production.  In 1959, faux mountains probably didn’t matter, but expectations have been inflated since then.

Carrie Underwood is 30 now – the same age Julie Andrews was when she made The Movie. Let’s hope Carrie’s career has the same kind of arc that Julie’s had. And let’s hope that NBC doesn’t let the naysayers keep it from televising more live musicals.