Much like Sharknado and most presidential debates, NBC’s The Sound Of Music on Thursday night caused Twitter to explode in a frenzy of arguing and counterarguing. It was charming! It was dreadful! It was liiiiiiiive!
Most agreed on a few things, the most positive of which were — either suspiciously or logically, depending on your cynicism levels — the things skeptics went into the production most prepared to concede. Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess was wonderful, and her performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” made more than just Carrie Underwood tear up. Christian Borle and Laura Benanti as Max and the Baroness were funny and sharp, although this was a far less likable Baroness than the one you may know from the film.
The production went off without any real hitches, unless you want to count someone stepping on Benanti’s dress as she swanned into a scene. The technical side, however, left a lot to be desired. Particularly in the abbey scenes, the orchestra overwhelmed the singers. Perhaps someone feared that the sheer power of McDonald’s voice — which she is used to using to fill live spaces — would overwhelm television microphones or something, but in her climactic reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” there were times when she seemed barely audible. Likewise, an unsettling bit of white noise settled over the first couple of segments until, presumably, some knob or another was correctly adjusted. (Hey, I’m not a sound engineer.)
We come around, however, as we must, to the leads. Country-pop singer Carrie Underwood sounded like a country-pop singer throughout, only really letting down her [vocal] belt a couple of times. She does have a softer voice, and it seemed a shame that she use it in more of the performance. It’s tempting to wonder whether nerves may have been responsible for that, as it’s far easier to belt (and to remain in familiar terrain) than to coo when you’re nervous.
However one felt about her style, however, and about the appropriateness of pop flourishes in Broadway tunes, Underwood deserves enormous props for a live rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd,” which is a technical achievement that cannot be denied. That’s a hard song to sing when millions of people are watching you, many of them want you to fail, it involves yodeling, and you’re doing parts of it lying on your belly on a bed. She’s not untalented as a singer, whether her style is your thing or not.
Underwood’s bigger problem — and it was sizable — came in the acting. She simply is not an actress, at least not at this point, and her entire performance had the sense of remove that comes from the constant awareness that one is experiencing carefully considered line readings. The conflict between finding the right actress and finding the right singer for a musical intended to reach a wide audience is nothing new, of course — that’s why Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr, and Audrey Hepburn were cast in West Side Story, The King And I, and My Fair Lady and found their singing voices provided by Marni Nixon. In those films, they used the actress/star they wanted and had somebody else do the singing. Here, they used the singer/star they wanted and made do with her acting.
Underwood is at the center of this show; she is likely to take the lion’s share of the criticism for its shortcomings. But she should not. Because quite honestly, Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp was worse.
Moyer seemed brutally uncomfortable both when singing and when not singing, and while no one is obligated to replicate the performance of anyone else, the sly, sexy humor that Christopher Plummer brought to the Captain in the film was sorely missed in Moyer’s read. Plummer’s Captain was somewhat amused by Maria, deep down, and it is that amusement that first made him begin to warm to her.
Perhaps because this Maria seemed so much less amusing, Moyer’s Captain simply seemed miserable and angry and hateful toward his children, unrelentingly, until the moment when everything snapped into place and he was suddenly in love with her and was the warmest TV father since Steven Keaton.
The acting, in fact, was clearly difficult for some of these folks to moderate and adjust for television. McDonald, who is a television veteran, effectively blended theatricality with the somewhat more realistic acting style television flatters most. Borle and Bernanti, too. But there were other performers who seemed to be doing Great Big Theater Acting, which works great in theaters but looks almost comical close up on TV.
In fact, those who did best were not merely Broadway vets — they were Broadway vets with substantial TV experience. In a production like this, it’s utterly unnecessary to argue over the superiority of theater veterans over television people, and it’s dangerous to believe a person with substantial theater experience will simply walk into TV and have all their skills transfer without thought. Because what really works in a theatrical production placed on television is, logically enough, people who can do both.
There was certainly plenty of social media tut-tutting Thursday night from those who fancy themselves defenders of the theater, but it’s hard not to conclude that many millions of people watching Audra McDonald perform “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is ultimately a win. That’s not only because of her stupendous voice, but because she brought so much more thoughtfulness to that rendition than many of us are used to. She seemed to be truly considering this, offering advice about persistence, not merely standing by a window and delivering a huge song, huge-song-style.
The production also added back a couple of numbers that the film cut from the stage show, including “There’s No Way To Stop It,” a number for Borle and Benanti that ups the stakes by showing them as shallow pragmatists perfectly happy to compromise with the Nazis swarming Austria. If you grew up with the movie, you might have been surprised to see how political and satirical that number is (it’s also a great song), just as some who (wrongly) think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as merely schlock artists or melodramatists are sometimes surprised the first time they hear the barbed description of learned racism “Carefully Taught” from South Pacific.
Ultimately, while there were some serious problems, I’m glad they did this, and I left with substantial affection for it. I hope they do it more. I hope they keep trying to find good leads. Folks I was chatting with on Twitter were helping me imagine a version of Guys And Dolls with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Sky Masterson and Kelly Clarkson (who was really funny in the otherwise unremarkable pilot of CBS’s The Crazy Ones) as Miss Adelaide. That sounds pretty great to me.
I would love to see this work; I would love to see this become the new thing in live events instead of the proliferation of awards shows. This did not work on the whole, but there’s no reason this can’t work, and if they continue to do it, they’ll continue to get better at things like the sound mixing.
There is a shot near the end of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in which McDonald and Underwood turn to what would be the audience, and Underwood’s eyes are filling up. I firmly believe that what you are looking at there is genuine thrill, a performer getting a chance to do something amazing that she wants desperately to do well alongside someone she admires enormously. It may have been a sloppy mess in places, and the costume department could stand to ease up on the silly-looking shorts for men and the silly-looking dirndls for Maria. But it was something I hope they try again. Because in truth, it wasn’t good, but I enjoyed it.