Friday, December 6, 2013

The Sound of Music Live! Review - How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Carrie Underwood tries very hard in NBC's "The Sound of Music Live!"

Allow me to begin by giving Carrie Underwood a great deal of credit.  She has balls.  She took on one of the iconic roles in all of stage and screen: Maria von Trapp, a part that won Mary Martin a Tony in 1960 and Julie Andrews an Oscar nomination in 1966.  The Sound of Music itself took home the Tony for Best Musical and the Oscar for Best Picture in the years in which it was nominated.  This is a role that has transcended theatre and even film to become ingrained in our cultural consciousness.  Hell, Jaguar has built an entire marketing campaign around “the hills are alive with the sound of XFR-S”  And to not just take on the role, but to perform it live with, let’s face it, real actors, takes balls.

And, to tell the truth, she wasn’t terrible.  She wasn’t Julie Andrews by any stretch of the imagination, but really, who would be?  Underwood actually surprised me on several occasions with the lyricality of her voice.  While I wouldn’t exactly refer to her rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd” as “yodeling,” she kept enough lightness in her voice to not just survive the song, but actually make it fun and entertaining.  There were only a few parts (most notably her “Mis” in “Do-Re-Mi” and one line near the end of “The Lonely Goatherd”) where her singing wasn’t quite up to par.  The fault there, however, belongs more to her background as a country singer than to her talent, because when she able to focus on vocal technique, she was actually quite good.  But when she had to multitask and put her voice on autopilot, her lack of classical training showed as her vowels flattened and her tone grew nasally.  That didn’t happen often, though, and for the most part she sang the part of Maria far better than I had expected.

While she may have sung the part well, the same can’t be said of her acting.  She wasn’t flubbing her lines or missing her marks or anything, but the best that can be said of Underwood’s acting performance is that it was nonexistent.  Her face was expressionless throughout much of the show.  Her speaking voice rarely varied from a “what’s my next line” monotone.  She had no chemistry with Bill Moyer’s Captain Von Trapp leading me to wonder what on earth made the Mother Abbess believe that Maria was actually in love with him.  There was even a moment when Maria mistakenly calls him “Reverend” but Underwood’s delivery was so flat that it was impossible to tell whether this was the character’s mistake or the actor’s.

It was especially difficult to watch Underwood muddle through because the supporting cast was filled out with superb broadway veterans, most notably Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess, who absolutely ran away with every scene she was in and seemed to be putting on a master class with Underwood any time the two were left alone together.  Her performance of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," in particular, sent chills down my spine and clearly brought Underwood to real, literal tears.  Likewise, Laura Benanti and Christian Borle shone brightly as Elsa and Max, at times making me wonder what Von Trapp saw in the bumpkin that would make him want to stop hanging out with the obviously much more fun and lively Nazi sympathizers.  Wait…I think I may have answered my own question.

The supporting cast also all brought a sense of vivacity and liveliness to a stage production that could have easily felt dead on television.  And it was impossible to ignore that this was, in fact, a stage production broadcast live.  The lavish sets were able to brighten most scenes, but the fact is that all live, scripted broadcasts tend to look and feel like soap operas, and The Sound of Music was no exception.  Additionally, the need to keep everybody’s microphones on left a soft, dull white noise lingering over the entire production.  Still, it was obvious that a great deal of time and money (a rumored $9 million) went into creating a production that went off largely without a hitch.

That a live televised production of a stage musical was performed this well is something of a small miracle, let alone the fact that it was a smash hit, drawing in 18.62 million viewers (peaking at over 19 million) and a 4.6 rating.  Basically, The Sound of Music put up three straight hours of ratings rivaling The Big Bang Theory on a night when NBC has, at least once this season, finished in seventh place, behind the other three networks, NFL Network, TBS, and Univision.  For even more perspective, that’s the best non-sports rating NBC has gotten for a Thursday night since the ER finale in 2009 and the most non-sports viewers they’ve had since the Frasier finale in 2004.  I don’t think even NBC predicted a reception (in viewers at least if not critically) like this.

So where do we go from here?  Certainly, if television history has taught us anything, it’s that when a network finds a success they ride that horse into the ground.  But for once, I’m actually excited about that prospect.  It’s clear that there’s an audience for live theatre that doesn’t want to buy $100 tickets and flights to New York.  Just look at the success that the Metropolitan Opera has had broadcasting its performances live to movie theatres.  Certainly, there’s a portion of the audience who were watching because of Carrie and Underwood and there was likely another portion watching just in case some disaster befell the production (after all, 13 million people watched a guy walk a tightrope for twenty minutes to see if he'd fall into the Grand Canyon).  But as anybody who was on Twitter or Facebook last night can tell, there’s a certain visceral feeling that comes from communally enjoying (or hate-watching) live television that can’t be found in normal programming. 

So expect event television to become a much bigger piece of the network landscape  It may not necessarily come in the form of live musicals*, but the networks need shows that will attract viewers from all walks of life.  And even though The Sound of Music wasn’t a rousing success, I can’t think of that as anything but wonderful.  Television needs variety.  Hell, variety has its own Emmy category.  It also needs galvanizing events (beyond sports) that will bring viewers together.  The Sound of Music wasn’t perfect, but it signaled good things for the future of television.

*Though might I suggest following up The Sound of Music with Wicked starring Kristin Chenowith and Idina Menzel or, if you’re still looking for a classic, West Side Story.

A couple of spare thoughts - 

Good lord this show needed a live audience.  I was stunned when there wasn't any applause after the opening number and, while it's not exactly a funny musical, there are a handful of jokes, and they all fell completely flat without any audience laughter.  

And while Underwood wasn't great, she was much, much better in her scenes with the Von Trapp kids.  They brought a liveliness out of her and made her seem much more present in their scenes.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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