Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Carrie Underwood Goes Live in SOUND OF MUSIC on NBC December 5

Carrie Underwood and her live version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music will come twirling to your television at 7 pm (8 Eastern) on Thursday, December 5. There's been lots of talk about this particular production, with speculation on whether Underwood will be able to pull off the songs as written, whether she can act, whether it is sacrilege for NBC to try to redo the Julie Andrews movie from 1963, and whether the fact that this is live makes it special and fantastic and worthy all by itself.

My guesses? She won't, she can't, no and no again.

She definitely isn't singing the songs as written -- they're set down for her since her voice is lower than Julie Andrews, who famously played Maria in the film, or Mary Martin, Rebecca Luker or Laura Benanti, who have played Maria on Broadway -- and from the trailers and the video out so far of her vocal performance, she doesn't know what to do to act her way through a song, either. You can listen to her versions of "The Sound of Music,"  "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Mi," and "The Lonely Goatherd" on Youtube, and that should tell the story right there. Listen to the difference between Underwood and multi-Tony Award winner Audra McDonald on "Favorite Things." The energy, the spark, the charisma... It's all there in McDonald's portion of the song, while Underwood sounds careful, tentative and dull. Underwood does bring a really yodelly yodel sound to "Lonely Goatherd," which is kind of fun. And maybe she will relax and reflect more personality when she performs these pieces live. These are from the soundtrack (or "studio recording"), which is already available on Amazon and iTunes.

Whether she can act or sing as Maria won't matter to her millions of fans, of course, and stunt casting on Broadway has already happened so many times that nobody really cares anymore if some star from another universe tries to take on a role, classic or otherwise, even if he or she isn't right for it. Brooke Shields and a thousand other people in Grease come to mind, as do Melanie Griffith and Jerry Springer in Chicago, Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain and Haley Joel Osment in American Buffalo. It's about butts in seats in those cases, and about viewers and ratings in this one.

I don't think it's a travesty or disrespectful to Julie Andrews or the movie version, either. At the time the film was made, I feel certain at least a few people were complaining that it was a travesty and disrespectful to Mary Martin, the stage star who always got overlooked when it came time to make movies of her Broadway triumphs. But then, Julie Andrews got replaced by Vanessa Redgrave, a wonderful actress who was certainly not known for her singing, for the film version of Camelot, and by Audrey Hepburn, who was lovely but really not a singer, either, in My Fair Lady, so Andrews had some grievances of her own. I can't say I like the Swiss Miss get-up Underwood is wearing in the posters -- Maria has usually been more of a plain girl, as you can see by what Andrews has on in the DVD cover image shown here -- or the vapid and vacant look on her face, which brings to mind Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Heidi outfit and the blank face were part of an effort to make Carrie look her prettiest for fans who expect their country singers to be glitzy and sparkly, and maybe even to give her 30-year-old self a more youthful glow. Maria is supposed to be 18, after all.

But, no, this isn't a gift to the entertainment world by bringing back live TV.  We have Saturday Night Live and a host of sporting events, which often include halftime entertainment, as well as a lot of singing competitions. Aside from the musicals and operas we get to see on PBS's Great Performances, Britain's National Theater and Globe offer live shows on screens around the world, and there are filmed versions of all sorts of live shows these days, from Neil Patrick Harris in Company to the West End Merrily We Roll Along and David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing. Plus I've seen a few of the old live musicals, and the quality wasn't great enough to make me nostalgic for more like them. This Sound of Music won't look like those classic cases of filming a live musical for TV, anyway, since they will be using multiple soundstages to give a more upscale look to the sets and scenery.

On the plus side, they have stuffed the cast with real Broadway stars who can elevate their supporting roles, like McDonald as the Abbess (inexplicably singing "My Favorite Things"), Laura Benanti as the Countess and Christian Borle as Max. The Broadway fans who might otherwise eschew a Carrie Underwood vehicle may tune in to see and hear McDonald, Benanti and Borle. And a song called "How Can Love Survive," sung on stage in 1959 and 1998 but not in the movie, will be back in this new version to give Benanti and Borle more to do. That's excellent news.

I suppose there is also an argument that this enterprise will acquaint a new generation of pop and/or contry music fans with Broadway, in the same way that sticking any number of American Idol alumni into shows like Grease, Hair, Rent and Rock of Ages was supposed to bridge that gap. Will it work? Will Carrie's fans flock to the TKTS booth to plunk down cash for new musicals like The Bridges of Madison County or A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder or another Rodgers and Hammerstein choice like the current Cinderella revival? Or perhaps create a resurgence in musical events on television, with a Kinky Boots performance broadcast live this week and A Night with Janis Joplin the next? I'm thinking that depends on the ratings, the enthusiasm of advertisers, and the overall cost, as well as the vehicle itself and whether more stars like Carrie Underwood are game.

Stay tuned. We'll all know more after Thursday!


  1. I love that song--glad to hear it's back! "No rides for us on the top of a bus, etc.!" Planning to watch this. Looking forward to the Countess.

  2. I love, love, love Laura Benanti, so I am looking forward to the Countess, too. Maybe she can stand behind Carrie Underwood and surreptitiously supply some of the missing high notes.

  3. In the stage musical, "My Favorite Things" actually is a duet for Maria and the abbess, early on before Maria leaves the convent. It has one of those did-they-really-write-that-in-1959 setups, where the abbess says something like "So get packed so you can go to the Von Trapps tomorrow, Maria. But before you go, I heard you singing a song in the corridor yesterday. How does that go again?"

    So all in all, purist though I generally am, I thought it was smart of the movie to take the song from that scene and use it as the comfort-the-kids-during-the-storm song (which, onstage, is "The Lonely Goatherd"). But on the other hand... more for Audra to sing, so OK.