Some Thoughts on NBC’s The Sound of Music Live

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Two posts in a row about Nazis? That’s got to be some sort of record!

Last night NBC aired their much promoted live version of The Sound of Music. If you are one of the handful of people out there that still watches NBC (like me), there was no way that you couldn’t have known about this as they have been hyping this event for months. Starring American Idol winner and legit country music star Carrie Underwood and True Blood’s Stephen Moyer, the special was a live production based on the Broadway musical that later would become the film that most of us are familiar with. I actually didn’t even know that there had ever been a Broadway version of The Sound of Music until recently; I had always just kind of assumed that the movie version was it, which in retrospect was kind of naïve on my part. Generally, film musicals are based on some source material on the stage. I guess I never really gave The Sound of Music much in-depth analysis.

Now, after my review yesterday of The Book Thief, I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that any version of The Sound of Music wouldn’t be my bag. That wouldn’t be a crazy assumption given my personal tastes in general, but despite my general aversion to things that are sappy and sugary I actual do have a soft spot in my heart for most musicals (and by extension, movies based on musicals). The saccharine quality that I find so annoying in traditional films just doesn’t bother me as much in stage or movie musicals; I think I assume by their very nature that they are supposed to be kind of goofy and ridiculous. I mean, they are based on the assumption that people spontaneously break into song at any moment. Their rules are a little different.

Like most people my age, I grew up watching the Julie Andrews’ The Sound of Music film when it would make its perennial appearance on TV Thanksgiving of Christmas evening. Back in the old days of the 80s, we didn’t have as many channels to choose from so The Sound of Music was generally the only game in town. I’ve always enjoyed it, but I can’t say that I am a huge The Sound of Music fan. I’ll stop to watch it if it’s on, mostly for nostalgia, but I won’t actively seek it out. I like the songs more than the actual plot, and I’d be hard pressed to give you all the details of the story or to even name all the von Trapp children (as depicted in the film; the names, ages, genders and number of von Trapp children were changed). I may not love The Sound of Music, but I liked it well enough.

Despite my general affinity for the musical, I wasn’t super excited for last night’s live TV production. It actually seemed like a questionable choice to revisit a story that has already been told multiple times and that a version that is beloved by most. I didn’t think that there was any clamoring for a new The Sound of Music; I wasn’t against the idea of a live performance per se, but wasn’t sure that the choice of musical was the best. People don’t like change and there was no way that this production wasn’t going to be compared to the film version (and probably not favorably). I went back on forth on whether I really wanted to devote 3 hours of my life to this thing, but the curiosity factor got the best of me so I decided I’d tune in to at least get a taste of what this version was like. I was also interested to see how Moyer would be singing; I assumed that he could carry a tune as he isn’t a big enough name to be cast if he couldn’t actually sing, but I wanted to see the guy best known as Vampire Bill in action. I was guessing that I wouldn’t last very long watching it and would change the channel.

Let it be known, however, that I did in fact stick around for the entire special last night. Now, please do not mistake that for being so enraptured by the production that I couldn’t look away; my persistence was the result of a combination of factors that had very little to do with my direct enjoyment of the show. There was very little else on last night that captured my attention and I was laid up on the couch with a pulled muscle in my back, so I was a captive audience. I would have bailed out much sooner if I could have found something else to watch. But the main reason I stuck around was that I was having a good time watching the special with people on Twitter. Twitter is perfect for a few things and the collective experience of commenting on a show that everyone is watching is one of them. I always have my Twitter feed open during any sort of awards show to see how other people are reacting to things. Twitter can help spark a revolution in the Middle East, but it is also a great tool for snark. And I do love me some snarky comments.

Twitter basically reinforced my opinion of The Sound of Music – Live: an interesting idea that didn’t 100% work in the execution. It was not nearly as awful as I had imagined, but it wasn’t a soaring achievement either. I’m guessing that a lot of people who tuned in were there mostly to see if the performer made any mistakes; that is, of course, one of the risks of doing anything in one take and I’m sure that was a draw for some. Would anyone forget their lines? Would there be any missteps? On that count, the show was mostly successful. There were no major mistakes that I noticed and the production unfolded pretty seamlessly. My biggest complaint on that front was the lightening that was used; some of the scenes, especially in the abbey, were very dark and did not illuminate all the actors very well. It kind of looked like they were doing the musical in a cave. I don’t know how much of that was from doing a live production in HD, but it looked like an old soap opera in a lot of scenes.

My biggest issue with the production was from its casting. I thought Stephen Moyer did a pretty nice job all things considered, though I found it constantly jarring that he was a normal flesh color rather than the paler pallor that he has on True Blood. He wasn’t a spectacular singer, but he held his own and didn’t butcher “Edelweiss,” which was my primary concern. He was quite good with the child actors and had good stage presence. Christopher Plummer will always be Captain von Trapp to me and Moyer did nothing to challenge that, but Moyer was perfectly serviceable.

Carrie Underwood, however, was a different story. I actually like Underwood and think that she is a talented singer. I didn’t even mind when she briefly dated my future husband Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo. She seems like a lovely person and I wish her much success. But that woman cannot act her way out of a paper bag. Underwood was good when she was singing, but any time she was called upon to do anything other than that there was a problem. I don’t know if she was just really nervous or what, but she was clearly reading her lines in many scenes and generally looked like a hostage that was being forced to participate in a production against her will. There was absolutely no emotion to her performance and she was so wooden in her acting that it became a major distraction. I was actually looking forward to when Maria wouldn’t be on the screen, which is kind of big problem when she is the star of the show. For such a key role, they really needed to cast someone who could sing and act; I give Underwood an A for effort, since this is not something that she’s done before and good for her for going outside her comfort zone, but she should probably stick to her country music gig in the future. She’s a big name, but NBC did her no favors by throwing her in the deep end when she wasn’t ready. If all she had to do was sing, she would have been OK, but her poor acting was kind of a deal breaker for me. Moyer really tried to carry the emotional weight for both of them, but it just didn’t work.

The camera work didn’t necessarily do Underwood any favors either, as there were several shots that had the characters basically directly addressing the audience by having them speak into the camera. These tight shots made it very clear that Underwood was reading off cue cards and emphasized the somewhat panicked look in her eyes. I didn’t like this practice of breaking the 4th wall in general, but it only served to highlight some of the issues of the production.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • The actor that they hired to play Rolf, Michael Campayno, looked like he was in his 30s. It was very jarring to see him in scenes with the actress who played Liesel and put an inadvertently creepy To Catch a Predator  spin on the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
  • I don’t know what was up with those incessant Walmart commercials featuring that family with all those children. Did Walmart buy a family? Whenever those ads came on was my cue to go do other things.
  • Audra McDonald was great as Mother Abbess; she nailed “Climb Every Mountain.” Good job by her.
  • Since this version was based on the stage production and not the movie, there were a bunch of new songs that I’d never heard before. Baroness Elsa Schrader gets a lot more to do in this version.
  • I always thought it was weird that the nuns reprise their song “Maria” on Maria’s wedding day, since it’s basically a song that lists all her faults. That doesn’t seem very appropriate.
  • I couldn’t put my finger on who the character of Max Detweiler resembled as costumed in this production until someone on Twitter said it: Rooster from Annie.
  • Underwood did a fine job with the yodeling, though this is still my favorite celebrity yodeling of all time:

 

  • Sadly, no one else had my vision for a True Blood crossover involving vampires showing up to take out the Nazis. Don’t tell me that wouldn’t have been awesome.
  • I don’t know if it would have helped or not, but the fact that this was done without an audience was kind of weird. Since there was no crowd reaction or applause, it contributed to a somewhat lifeless quality to the production.

While this production of The Sound of Music fell a little flat and suffered in comparison to the movie, I am still glad that NBC was willing to take a chance on something different. It wasn’t flawless, but it at least an attempt at something big which I appreciate. You have to swing for the fences to hit a home run and I hope that fact that there were some stumbles with this production doesn’t prevent other networks from thinking a little outside the box and trying new things. The Sound of Music did well in the ratings, so hopefully that will encourage other networks (or it could mean that NBC is going to be pumping out Clay Aikens in Peter Pan next year).  Smarter casting and better production would have gone a long way in improving The Sound of Music, but I hope this leads to further experimentation in the future.

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