Arts: ‘Sound of Music’ makes case for more live theater on TV

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David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2013 12:01 am | Updated: 3:23 am, Thu May 8, 2014.

NBC recently aired a live performance of “The Sound of Music” featuring the 2005 “American Idol” winner and successful country music singer Carrie Underwood filling the lead role of Maria.

Stephen Moyer, an actor best known for playing a vampire in the trendy HBO series “True Blood,” played Captain Von Trapp. It was a rare event these days as a television performance of a stage musical certainly harks back to a bygone era.

“The Sound of Music” was the final work by the renowned team of composer Richard Rogers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. It debuted on Broadway in November 1959 with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel in the lead roles, and won five Tonys the next year including best musical and best actress. It ran for more than 1,400 performances before closing in summer 1963.

Just two years later came the movie version with Julie Andrews playing the part of Maria. It’s been an annual staple on TV for decades, dependably introducing new generations to its charm and appeal.

It’s also apparently become something of a cultural version of Mount Rushmore, particularly Andrews’ part. “There are some things that are so revered in pop culture it’s nearly criminal to try to re-introduce them” wrote CNN critic Breeanna Hare. “Underwood is an undeniable talent, but the singer is now facing complaints for even attempting to portray the young nun.”

She sure is. Much of the reaction to the production took issue with her performance, the bulk of the complaints being that while she may be able to sing heavily produced pop-country, she’s no Julie Andrews.

An iconic performance makes it harder for anyone else to fill the role. Lots of us have intense favorites of this kind that influence our opinions in ways that are not entirely productive.

I’m far more wedded to Robert Preston’s performance as Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” a role he played both on Broadway and in the subsequent movie version, than I am to Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” I hope — but am far from sure — that I would at least be generous with a new version that featured someone else in that role.

Other criticism, however, revealed that a lot of people don’t know there’s a profound difference between a live stage production and a film (or normal television) production. Harping about scenes that in the movie were shot outside or with better camera work and audio seems to miss the point entirely. It also was disappointing to realize that a lot of people don’t know that “The Sound of Music” was a stage play before it was a movie.

Grousing and sniping aside, this was the first attempt at a live TV musical of this kind in more than 50 years, and it drew 18.5 million viewers. Numbers like that might encourage similar attempts in the future.

New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley says the whole enterprise reflects a pop culture tension between the familiar and the new. On one hand is audiences’ bankable affection for a 1965 movie that transformed a Broadway hit into a pop culture institution. On the other is the current craze for live vocal performance shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol,” which, of course, is where Underwood came from in the first place. Those shows, Stanley notes, thrive largely on “zippy glitz” and Top 10 hits.

It may be too much to hope that networks would select performers whose training reflects the skills needed instead of resorting to similarly gimmicky casting. But more productions like this could introduce new generations to live theater.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.

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