(Do you see what I did with the title? Sort of a play on the idea of Monday Morning Quarterbacks, or Armchair Coaches?) I know, I know. You have all been waiting to hear my thoughts on The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood. Kidding. I realize that no one cares. But since musical theatre is sort of what I do, I have to talk about it. It is a compulsion I cannot resist. In fairness, I only saw a little bit at the end because I was busy last night. When I watch the rest, I will post any corrections and updates. Still, I think I saw enough to see some patterns. So, here are my thoughts.
1. People love this show. They always have, and I suspect they will for more many, many years to come. It is a major piece of our cultural heritage in the U.S. Critics and professionals have never liked it. Too sentimental, etc. Even Christopher Plummer hated it. But people, regular people, love it. There's a lesson in that, I think for any of us who try to make or produce art (in whatever form), and we would be wise to try to understand the appeal. This show debuted on Broadway when my grandmother was alive. My kids now know the songs. It's pretty remarkable when you think about that.
2. Kudos to NBC for doing this. Bravo! It was a risk, I think. I appreciate that they invested some resources in musical theatre. I think we all ought to appreciate that. If you have ever complained about the coarsening or dumbing down of the culture, the mindless drivel or smut that fills our airwaves, then you ought to support this idea, even if it's not your thing personally. In my opinion, anything that elevates us and unites us in any way is a good thing. For that reason alone, I love this and everything about it.
3. I love the idea that they filmed live theatre, as opposed to doing a made-for-TV-movie. Gutsy and pretty cool. And something that used to be done frequently.
4. If you are one of the people who love this musical and just enjoyed having it on last night and being able to watch it and maybe introduce it to your kids, that is awesome. In my opinion, that is a degree of success right there.
5. I saw a lot of comments about the way some songs fit into the order of the show. This was the Broadway version, the original. The film changed a lot of things. But this production wasn't cheating. They simply performed the theatrical version.
6. Having made my share of mistakes, and having flopped as a director and performer, my heart is with these folks. It takes guts to perform. It really does. You are putting your heart and soul on the line in a high-stakes situation. Public failure is a real possibility.
Now, that being said, I had a few thoughts.
Having decided to do this, I wish NBC would have done it well. Surely they had the resources. But what I saw had a very unpolished feel to it. It looked like someone had recorded a high- budget community theatre or college production. Every high school theatre teacher knows that when you simply video a play, you lose something. Live theatre doesn't translate well to cameras. It can be done, but if you are going to record a play, it has to be planned very carefully. One cannot simply take a camera and plop it down in a theatre and get the same result as going to see it. I suspect part of the problem with the look was that the production was lit as if it was a theatre. The problem is that it was also a filmed production, which requires different kind of lighting. I think, honestly, that a lot of the complaints I heard about the acting might be caused by the same problem. Acting for a camera is fundamentally different than acting on stage. A beautiful theatrical performance will look terrible on camera, and an outstanding film performance will seem small and invisible on-stage.
As it is, this production seemed to combine the perils and weaknesses of both live theatre and TV while not leveraging any of the strengths.
I think that most of the complaints I heard about the acting stem from this. I suspect if we had seen Audra McDonald performing live, her performance would have seemed energetic and fresh, not over-the-top. She is an experienced, amazing Broadway star. And Stephen Moyer who played the Captain is the opposite. He's a TV actor. Had he been filmed in the same way he is on TV, then it would probably have been a very fine, subtle performance. But that kind of stuff gets lost in a theatre.
There are also some casting issues. I understand wanting big names to get attention. But I'm not sure that Mother Superior was the right part of Audra MacDonald. She is a young, elegant, energetic woman. It seems to me she would have been better as the Baroness perhaps, or maybe even Maria. The script requires that Mother Superior be a figure of wisdom, experience, and gravitas. If Judi Dench could sing, or Angela Lansbury was a soprano, that would be the way to go.
UPDATE: I have now seen Audra McDonald sing, "Climb Every Mountain." It was stunning. You rarely see someone act and sing that well at the same time. I still don't think this was the best part for her. And I still think that the end, when she shouted Bible verses in the garden, it seemed off (more suited to theatre than TV). But she did beautifully. I still think her performance would have been better on stage.
Which brings us to Carrie Underwood. I saw some mean things said about her and I think that's wrong. I also think it was a mistake for her to do this. I don't blame her for wanting to do this. Who wouldn't? But, she had an impossible task. There was no way she was ever going to succeed. She doesn't have any acting experience. To make it worse, she's going up against the memories everyone has of Julie Andrews. It was a no-win. I admire her for trying, and the role and songs are so beloved that people will forgive her. Some will even like her because she certainly can sing. But the part was not written for a country singer. If you asked Julie Andrews to sing one of Carrie Underwood's songs, it wouldn't quite work either. So I'm truly baffled as to why anyone who knows what they are doing would green-light this. The part shouldn't have been offered to her. It was just not a good fit. No disrespect to Ms. Underwood.
Here's the thing: the role of Maria was specifically written for one of the most experienced, successful Broadway stars of her day, then performed on screen by another major star with serious musical theatre experience. It's not an easy starter-role. It requires a vocal style and acting chops that are not going to be picked up quickly, even in some intense sessions with a vocal and acting coach. (Something similar happened when they put Nick Jonas in as Marius in the 25th Anniversary Broadcast of Les Mis. It was a role for which he was not suited).
And this is what bothers me about the whole thing. These problems were absolutely, entirely predictable. Everyone in theatre knows this stuff. Film and stage acting are different. Musical theatre requires acting ability and has a specific vocal style. So my question is why no one attended to this. They could have had different lighting and camera angles. The director should have toned Ms. McDonald down and energized Mr. Moyer. They could have found a more suitable Maria.
This makes me wonder who was in charge and why they didn't anticipate and plan for this stuff. Think about the opportunity here. It could have been simply amazing--a defining cultural moment for a generation (sort of like "The Wizard of Oz" used to be). As it was, it provided some wonderful enjoyment for families and introduced a new generation to one of the most durable works of American musical theatre. It filled the airwaves with culture instead of trash. So, I really appreciate that.
One further note: It also appears to me that some of the dialogue was changed to sound more modern. I could be wrong, I'd have to research that. But it was my impression. I think that was a mistake. The spirit of a play lives inside its words. The spirit that infuses this show and made it so beloved was contained physically in the words, the lyrics, and the notes. When you mess with a third of that, you are taking some risks. It's all the rage to update classic musicals these days, but I think it's a huge mistake.
I hope NBC will keep doing this, I really do. But I hope they get someone in charge who really knows what they are doing. Think how great it would have been if this production had been flawless and really lived up to its potential!
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