Contributor Scott Redman reviews the live broadcast of The Sound of Music.
Carrie Underwood in “The Sound of Music.” (photo: Will Hart/NBC)
Truth be told: Last night NBC attempted a feat nearly impossible: a live telecast of the Broadway musical, The Sound of Music. Was it amazing? No. But was it inspiring and nostalgic to see a musical brought to life before your eyes on primetime television? Absolutely. The thought of wrangling and organizing the logistics seems overwhelming in such a multi-layered project.
The “live” factor of doing a musical has many variables: multiple scenes, costume changes for the lead characters, synching the orchestra with the singers, timing commercial breaks, etc. It was interesting to see the show come together in real time and view the natural mishaps destined to occur on a live telecast. At one point a man stepped on Elsa Schraeder’s dress (played eloquently by Laura Benanti) during the dinner party scene and she gave him a sordid glance to let go! It was also enjoyable to see Broadway favorites Christiane Noll (Ragtime) and Jessica Molaskey (Sunday in the Park With George) in nun habits as well as silk-voiced soprano, Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins) standing in the corner with a serving tray graciously playing a maid! The stars came out full force to support this endeavor, which reportedly cost NBC an estimated $9 million to produce.
Carrie Underwood stars as Maria and gets an A+ for effort and bonus points for having the gumption to play a role originally created on Broadway by Mary Martin and most famously portrayed by Julie Andrews in the original feature film. Underwood’s voice is plenty big enough to give the songs “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,””Do-Re-Me” and “The Lonely Goatherd” the power and precision they deserve. Her acting never quites makes the transition from postulant to governess to wife and stepmother. Many of her lines are delivered in monotone sound bytes as if she is a talking computer program. Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp is dashingly handsome and has a sense of command about him but plays his scenes without nuance and fails to establish a true connection to the other actors. Moyer and Underwood have very little on-camera charisma as a couple and it felt awkward seeing them kiss.
The Trapp kids are charming and look and sound just fine. Araine Rinehart is a stand out as Liesl, the oldest in the lineup who is slow to warm up to Maria’s antics. Rinehart embodies the youth and vibrance of what the future of Austria could be if the Anschluss wasn’t knocking on the back door. Michael Campanyo as the gentleman caller, Rolf, does a fine job and the dance sequence during “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” is one of the most captivating moments in the telecast, which ends with the two young lovers rolling down the mountainside entangled together.
Jessica Molasky as Sister Berthe, Elena Shaddow as Sister Sophia, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Christiane Noll as Sister Margaretta. (photo: Will Hart/NBC)
The supporting roles, all played by Broadway’s leading men and women, add credibility to the production. Audra McDonald is a powerhouse and sings “Climb Every Mountain” with a rich and smooth delivery. McDonald’s experience shines through the often low caliber camera and sound technology that surrounds her. In a pre-broadcast interview, Underwood described McDonald’s voice as if “butterflies were flying out of her mouth.” I couldn’t agree more. McDonald is a no-fail actress that can tackle any role given to her. Christian Borle’s performance as Max twirls his mustache a time or two too many and has a cartoon swagger about him. Laura Benanti adds a needed elegance playing the Baroness, Elsa Schrader. Benanti has a natural edge for the camera and a voice that matches her prowess.
In terms of production value, scenery was constructed in a way that made live filming possible, yet it at times felt thin. There were a couple of transitions where directors Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy Miller embraced the theatricality of the show by flying out a wall from the von Trapp mansion to reveal the walls inside the Abbey or pulling back a drape to reveal the stage at Kaltzberg Festival. It was during these brief moments where the team embraced the medium of television while keeping the theatrical sensibility of the musical form intact. Sound effects, better lighting and sound engineering would have given texture and filled the occasional static void between dialogue.
A cast recording of the telecast score has also been released and beautifully captures the golden melodies and poetic lyrics of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The music supervisor, David Chase, has done a fantastic job recreating the original score. Doug Besterman has revised the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett into a symphonic sounding dream. Kerri Underwood’s talent is best showcased here as a vocal recording artist rather than musical theater actress. The new recording will be a welcomed addition to anyone who is a fan of The Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved musicals of all time and was the last collaboration between the legendary song writing team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hamerstein II. The original film has become the epitome of “family movie night” and has spurned the notorious movie-sing-a-longs that have created a sub-culture of their own. (Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, makes note of this in his recording linear notes.) Whether or not the telecast could have been better is somewhat subjective but it still is a coup that the broadcast exposed a brand new generation to the spirit of musical theater and the American masterpiece, The Sound of Music.