There are so many lessons to be learned from NBC’s live broadcast of “The Sound of Music” that I hardly know where to begin.
More than 18.5 million people watched the special event with country singing star Carrie Underwood as Maria, and there may have been just as many tweets knocking her performance. (She herself tweeted that she was praying for the mean people who criticized her.)
Despite the harsh comments, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron say she’s the reason the ratings were so high.
They’re not discounting the enduring appeal of “The Sound of Music,” which remains popular on stage and from the 1965 film. The fact that it was broadcast live added to the excitement.
With all that success, it’s no surprise that NBC is talking with Meron and Zadan about doing another live musical next December. More on that in a moment.
Twitter was certainly alive with the sound of snarky comments about the broadcast, from the lighting and sound problems to Underwood’s underwhelming performance. I laughed at some of the posts.
But I also bristle at ill-informed reviews I’ve read since the broadcast, some by supposedly “professional” critics who don’t know the difference between the stage show and the film or the history of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Many of the reviews complained that the broadcast wasn’t like the movie.
To be clear, NBC aired the stage show with some tweaks. It was not the movie musical. The stage show tells the same story, yes. But some scenes and songs are handled differently. Two of my favorite songs, “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” — the only two with a slightly cynical, jaded edge to balance the sweetness of the rest — were dropped for the film. Like other recent productions of the stage version, this one included “Something Good,” which Rodgers wrote for the film after Hammerstein’s death. I prefer the original, “Ordinary Couple.”
Back to those lessons.
- Millions tuned in, which is exciting for fans of musical theater (who were probably the most critical). That means we’ll probably get more, and maybe more people will try live stage shows.
- We may have all learned about why some people do (or don’t) get cast in shows and movies. Sometimes, the best people don’t make it because producers and directors want a balance in skill levels among their casts.
In this case, the producers surrounded the inexperienced Underwood with some of the best Broadway talent they could get — Laura Benanti as Elsa, Christian Borle as Max and Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess.
All of them are accustomed to playing stage roles. But surrounding Underwood with such talent only made her look less confident. You can’t fault her for not trying, but she doesn’t have the training or experience for such a role.
- It takes more than a sweet voice to play Maria. Good singing requires good acting behind it, at least in the theater. There has to be thought and meaning behind the words you sing, even in the simplest of songs. Audiences want to get caught up in Maria’s world, her naivete, what she learns as a governess and the blush she feels when she realizes she’s falling for the Captain. We know those emotions were there because of words spoken or sung, but not with the kind of depth that would have made her performance memorable.
- Broadway stars wouldn’t necessarily make for a hit broadcast. Underwood is a music superstar with a huge following. The same can’t be said for some of the Broadway stars I’ve seen mentioned who might have made better Marias, primarily the wonderful Kelli O’Hara. I’d love to see her in the show, but I doubt she would have attracted 18.5 million viewers.
Now, I’m curious to see what Meron and Zadan will bring us next. There are only so many family-friendly musicals with the kind of appeal of “The Sound of Music,” and few as familiar. “The Wizard of Oz” has been turned into a stage show, but the stage version pales in comparison. “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella” were among the first musicals presented on television in the 1950s, but they’re not as well-known as “The Sound of Music.”
So what shows do you want to see? Post your comments or send me an email and I’ll share them in an upcoming column.
If you want a permanent copy, a DVD of “The Sound of Music Live” is due to be released this week.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.