December 5, 2013

THE SKED REVIEW: “The Sound of Music Live”


Creative risk-taking should always be applauded, especially in the conservative world of network television, and tonight NBC (in the particular person of its President Robert Greenblatt) and Executive Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron pushed all their chips to the center of the table for a massive live production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  Aside from the fundamental idea of presenting a 3-hour long classic musical as a live primetime presentation, they decided to rely on the original Howard Lindsay/Russel Crouse Broadway libretto (lightly amended by Austin Winsberg), rather than the celebrated–although somehow not even Oscar-nominated–screenplay by Ernest Lehman, which had changed it in many important ways.  Perhaps their most daring move was to cast Carrie Underwood, a hugely successful country singer but an inexperienced actress, in the lead role of Maria von Trapp.  Sadly, none of their choices can be called a complete success, and some of them failed rather badly.

The “live” part of the evening went reasonably smoothly, as these things go.  Under TV director Beth McCarthy Miller (she directed SNL for years, as well as 30 Rock’s live episodes), there were a few slipped lighting cues, some problems with the sound levels (especially in the quieter dialogue scenes), a botched bit of dialogue between Stephen Moyer’s Captain von Trapp and a miscellaneous Nazi, and an occasional out-of-focus moment, but nothing really fit for a blooper reel.  Visually, though, the live format meant that there was very limited opportunity for camera movements or interesting angles, and the show was mainly performed in a flat presentational style (musical production director Rob Ashford must also have contributed to this) that made it seem like the PBS recording of a live stage production circa 1978 rather than something shot on a soundstage.  (The massive scale of the project did allow for a pair of brief coups where walls slid up and allowed Maria to go in continuous shots from the von Trapp mansion to the abbey where she was to be married, and then to the stage of the Austrian folk festival, both on adjacent sets.)

It’s not clear whether the decision to forgo the Lehman screenplay was an aesthetic one or a rights issue (20th Century Fox owns the Sound of Music movie and its script, while the telecast was produced by NBC-owned Universal Television), but it exposed just how brilliantly Lehman had improved the original Broadway musical, in ways both big and small.  Fans of the movie–and in 2013, virtually all fans of The Sound of Music are that way because of the movie–had to be disconcerted to see “My Favorite Things” presented as a duet between Maria and the Mother Abbess (Audra McDonald) before Maria even left the abbey, with “The Lonely Goatherd” placed in the thunderstorm scene where the other song had been slotted on film.  (And, of course, there was no puppet show later for “Goatherd.”)  These weren’t random changes by Lehman:  “My Favorite Things” makes much more emotional sense where it’s been put in the movie, as something Maria sings to the children to calm them down and win their trust.  The nuns no longer stole the sparkplugs from the Nazis’ car, Maria no longer sat on a pinecone on her first night at the mansion, and “Edelweiss” wasn’t sung until the very end, when the family was on stage at the folk festival, rather than as the Captain’s emotional breakthrough.  Elsa (Laura Benanti) lost the best lines of her dialogue, including the punchline of her character, when she told the Captain in farewell, “Somewhere out there is a young lady who I think will never be a nun.”  Unnecessary songs were restored, as was a fair amount of flat, stagy dialogue (especially between Maria and the Abbess and between Elsa and Christian Borle’s Max), making the pace sag.  As a whole, this Sound of Music had the feel of a regional theatre production staged in the local civic center.

And that, unfortunately, is where Carrie Underwood belonged.  Underwood has a lovely, sweet voice, and her image fits with the Maria von Trapp character.  She fared pretty well tonight as long as she was singing, although better on some tunes (“Lonely Goatherd”) than others (the title song).  Ultimately, though, she’s an untrained actress, and putting her in a 3-hour live spotlight allowed her none of the cover that a skilled director and editor might have provided in a conventional film.  She clearly worked very hard at learning all the dialogue–an accomplishment in itself, when you think about the SNL hosts who go through their stints with eyes glued to their cuecards–and she understood what Maria was supposed to be feeling in each scene, but at this point in her career, she comes across as wooden and overly practiced.  Although she can dance, she’s not able to use her body expressively as a dramatic performer.  She didn’t even look right in her period costumes and wigs.

It’s impossible not to compare Underwood to Julie Andrews–sorry, but that’s the comparison that came with the job–and even though Maria is meant to be much younger than von Trapp, Andrews was clearly more than capable of holding her own with Christopher Plummer’s imperious Captain (in real life, she was only 6 years younger than he), while Underwood plays much younger than her 30 years and came off like a kid playing dress-up when she stood up to Moyer’s Captain.  It was more than that, though.  The sneaky secret behind Andrews’s performance was that for all its outward wholesomeness, it was always clear that there was immense passion under the surface of her Maria; when she and Plummer danced at the ball, they both seemed ready to crawl out of their clothes, even if neither would admit it.  There’s no chemistry whatsoever between Underwood and Moyer, and when the show moves into its romantic aspect, there’s something vaguely creepy about his interest in her.

Moyer, for his part, sang well enough, particularly on “Edelweiss,” but simply wasn’t very good as von Trapp–hammy, with a wavering accent, and never convincing as either cold, principled or romantic.  He, too, has to endure comparison with his classic forebear, and while Plummer’s melting had a genuine emotional charge because he’d been so believably mean, it’s clear from the start that Moyer’s Captain is a pushover.  Laura Benanti and Christian Borle, both actual Broadway stars–hey, there’s an idea!–scored best, especially Benanti, who seemed the most comfortable of anyone with her character.  Audra McDonald was stranded a bit by being the production’s sole nod to non-traditional casting, and as noted, the Mother Abbess in this version had more than her share of the worst dialogue, but her performance was impeccable, and–as anyone would expect–her performance of “Climb Every Mountain” was glorious.  The von Trapp children were all competent and didn’t overdo the cloying cuteness.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Bob Greenblatt, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron rested a great deal of an ambitious musical production’s fate on an American Idol singer when they cast Katharine McPhee in Smash.  It’s hard to believe they did the very same thing here with Carrie Underwood–when a gambler goes all in, it usually helps not to be betting on the same cards that lost in the last hand.  As admirable as their decision to mount this production was, that casting, and the strategy of abandoning a script that 50 years of history had proven to be superior, was in the end less brave than foolhardy, and it resulted in a show that, had it been on stage, might well have closed out of town.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."