For a few hours tonight, a musical from 1959 was trending on Twitter. Perhaps even more impressive: Two relatively unknown Broadway stars—Laura Benanti and Christian Borle—also shared in the trending glory. The Sound Of Music Live! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title) aimed to be the kind of must-watch-live TV event that no longer exists outside of sports and award shows, and it succeeded in making a splash on social media. While it remains to be seen if the idea of presenting live musicals on TV will become an annual tradition, The Sound Of Music Live! proved that the format can work, even if the product still needs some polishing.
The idea of presenting a 54-year old, three-hour-long musical live on national television is equal parts audacious and charming. It harkens back to the 1955 live broadcast of Peter Pan (which was in the middle of a successful run on Broadway) and the 1957 live broadcast of Cinderella (which was actually written for that broadcast and only later adapted for the stage). NBC has continually highlighted the “anything can happen” thrill of live television in its marketing of The Sound Of Music; half of the fun in watching this live was to see if Marta would take a tumble down the stairs (she didn’t), or if Kurt would be able to hit that high-note in “So Long, Farewell” (he did). There were no particularly egregious flubs or falls, and so the real question remains: Was it any good? Well, yes and no. Despite my initial optimism that she’d impress us all, Carrie Underwood offered vocal prowess but virtually no acting ability. But before we get to what didn’t work, let’s take a look at what did.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that people who perform in musical theatre for a living are pretty good at musical theatre. Stage veterans Christian Borle (the Von Trapp’s Uncle Max), Laura Benanti (Captain Von Trapp’s almost-fiancé Elsa), and Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess) absolutely walked away with the show. They handled the score effortlessly, but more importantly, they provided the acting chops that brought nuance to a rather weak book. Benanti absolutely nailed Elsa’s charming self-absorption and managed to turn a potentially one-note character into a believable woman. Captain Von Trapp (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) and his seven singing children also acquitted themselves fairly well, if not breathtakingly so. Ariane Rinehart as the oldest daughter, Liesl, was the one particular standout, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this performance catapults her to more stage and screen success.
In general, there’s a certain awkwardness about the show’s staging, stemming from the fact that The Sound Of Music Live! was simultaneously trying to be a play and a television event. There was no applause to mark the end of songs, which left actors suddenly jumping into lines of dialogue or self-consciously splashing each other with water as the show cut to commercial. And even though there was no live audience, the actors were apparently instructed to pause for laughs anyway, which lead to several uncomfortably long moments of silence in which everyone involved looked vaguely panicked. And beyond two innovative transitions that embraced the show’s theatricality, the choreography mostly amounted to everyone walking back and forth across a surprisingly cramped stage.
All that pales in comparison, however, to the biggest misstep of the night: Carrie Underwood. The country singer was clearly trying, and she brought an interesting earthy quality to songs that are generally associated with Julie Andrews’ lightness, but it takes more than a beautiful voice to succeed in a musical, and Underwood just lacked the acting skills needed to turn Maria into a charming, spunky woman who captures the heart of the Von Trapp family. At her best, she wrung out some half-convincing tears while breaking down in front of Mother Abbess. At her worst, she sounded like Justin Bieber reading his cue cards for the first time in a poorly cast SNL sketch. I appreciate that she probably introduced a new audience to The Sound Of Music, but she had no business being in a show that required her to do so much acting and relatively little singing.
Underwood’s casting seemed like a major hurdle for the show to overcome, and for the first 40 minutes or so, I was fairly certain I was going to give the whole venture an “F” and write it off as a failed experiment. Yet despite Underwood’s inelegance, the show began to develop into something more captivating as it delved into darker territory about the rise of Nazism. Benanti, Borle, and Moyer proved more than capable of handling the acting heavy work, and Audra McDonald—who currently has five Tonys and two Grammys—performed perhaps the most heart-wrenching version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” ever recorded. While The Sound Of Music Live! failed to recreate the joy and light of the 1965 Julie Andrews film, it will certainly be compared to, it just might have packed a greater emotional punch when it came to exploring the fascist society rising up around the Von Trapps—that image of the family singing on a stage surrounded by swastikas was appropriately chilling.
For many people, The Sound Of Music Live! will be remembered as a fun hate-watch that spawned a hundred drinking games. As a long-time musical theatre fan, however, I think there’s enough of merit here to warrant optimism about the future of musical theatre on TV. If tonight’s broadcast—and its CD and DVD sales—prove successful enough, NBC just might be willing to make live musicals a holiday tradition. With a stronger central performance and more moments of theatricality, future live musical productions could turn out to be hugely successful ways to create must-watch (and must-tweet) TV and introduce new generations to beloved musicals—the perfect combination of a few of my favorite things.
- If this does become an annual tradition, what musical would you like to see adapted next? I think something a bit more energetic could be fun. Perhaps Thoroughly Modern Millie?
- For anyone who might be chastising Carrie Underwood for accidentally skipping “I Have Confidence,” this broadcast featured the original Broadway version of the show—several songs were added, cut, and rearranged for the 1965 film.
- Since several lines reference how ugly her outfit is, the costume designer really shouldn’t have put Carrie in that absolutely adorable dress.
- That horrible white noise humming underneath the dialogue only served to underscore every awkward pause.
- The descending height on those kids was absolutely perfect. Kudos to the casting department.
- The guy who played Rolf is apparently a senior in college, but there is no way I’m going to believe he’s younger than 35. Also dressing him up as a little boy was absolutely the wrong way to compensate for his manly physique.
- While The Sound Of Music Live! offered a nice bit of color-blind casting for Mother Abbess, it would have been even more meaningful to see that extend to the Von Trapp family as well. Let’s all pause for a moment and imagine the perfection that would have been Norm Lewis as Captain Von Trapp.