Sunday, February 02, 2014

making the right music

Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Nuns, Nazis and kids.

Is it any wonder that Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" is so popular in whatever form that it's presented?

Robert Wise's elephantine 1965 film tends to be the dominating version, a movie so elusive to criticism that it managed to snare an Oscar for Best Picture.  Full disclosure:  I find it highly resistible.  Highly.

Another admission:  Naysayers bring out the contrarian in me. 

Now that the dust, hype and prejudgment have settled, it’s time to assay NBC’s recent telecast of the 1959 musical, a production that scored huge numbers for the network – 21.3 million viewers, not counting the encore presentation, and a 5.5 rating for the all-important viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. These numbers more than balance out the carping by the telecast's critics, including, sadly, some ungenerous (and unnecessary) comments by certain cast members of the '65 film version.

There are those who never fully appreciated the challenge that producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan rather courageously addressed – namely, a live mounting of material that not only is beloved (and indelibly printed in the collective mind of its legion of fans), but that also has become iconic.

In terms of musical theater, this was a potential suicide mission.

Exacerbating matters,  Meron and Zadan elected to stage the original Broadway production – which was billed tellingly as “a musical play” – and not the wildly sucessful film version which Disneyfied the material, making it so cloyingly family-friendly that, for years, one of the film’s stars,  Christopher Plummer, was fond of calling it “The Sound of Mucus.”

Plummer wasn’t being completely original:  He borrowed that line from critic Pauline Kael, and he seemed to stop using it when it became apparent that the film’s fans weren’t amused. After all, who remembers any Christopher Plummer film other than "The Sound of Music"?

Anyway,  it was obvious that Meron and Zadan’s version was decidedly not going to be your grandchild’s “Sound of Music.”

The result was a “Sound of Music” that restored the show’s dignity and honored its innate seriousness, something that was apparently oblivious to the filmmakers back in ’65.  Either willfully or unconsciously, neither Wise nor his scenarist Ernest Lehman understood the material. 

They illustrated this by dropping two of the show’s best songs (“How Can Love Survive?” and the great “No Way to Stop It,” both sung by Elsa in the show – or The Baroness, as the movie calls her), enlisting Richard Rodgers to pen some pale new songs (Oscar Hammerstein was long gone by this time), and needlessly fattening the roles of the Von Trapp children.

A case in point: There's a jaw-droppingly inane sequence added to the film by Lehman during which Plummer interrogates the children about where they've been. They lie and claim that they were out picking berries.

Blueberries to be exact.

"It's too early for blueberries," Plummer intones, catching them in their fabrication.

"They were strawberries," one of the kids explains. "It's been so cold lately, they turned blue!"

"Very well.  Show me the berries," Plummer pushes on.

"We don't have them."

"You don't have them.  What happened to them?"

"We, we ate them!"

This foolish, gratuitous sequence goes on seemingly forever.  There's a reason the Wise film runs a whopping 174 minutes.

Abetted by directors Rob Ashford (who handled the cast) and Beth McCarthy-Miller (who tended to the crew) and adapter Austin Winsberg,  Meron and Zadan eschewed such padding and went back to the basics of Howard Lindsay-Russell Crouse lean source material - and to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s careful distribution of the songs.

“My Favorite Things” was back where it belonged in the show’s narrative, not sung by Maria and the children, but used as it was originally intended – as a song of bonding between Maria and her Mother Superior.  This duet is crucial to that relationship.  The restored “No Way to Stop It” – sung by Elsa, Max and Captain Von Trapp – is a lilting polka with a chilling lyric that clearly defines the Captain and makes clear that his breakup with Elsa may have less to do with Maria and more to do with their clashing politics. 

It’s the best song in the show, hands-down.

The drab “An Ordinary Couple,” sung by Maria and the Captain, was cut from the ’65 film and replaced by Rodgers’ equally bland “Something Good.”   And the TV hands made the same decision.  Frankly, I could do without both.  Meron and Zadan could have done what they did with their 1997 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and borrowed the all-purpose “The Sweetest Sounds” from Rodgers’ “No Strings.”

I never thought I’d say this but I sort of missed “I Have Confidence,” a song Rodgers wrote for the film.  Originally titled “The Walking Soliloquy,” it defines Maria (much more so that the opening title song) as much as “No Way to Stop It” explains the Captain.

Finally, about the cast… Stephen Moyer (as the Captain), Christoper Borle (as Max), Audra McDonald (as the Mother Superior) and particularly Laura Benanti (as Elsa) all turned in admirably scaled-down, realistic performances.  They played dramatic characters who just happened to sing.  Benanti was so good that she almost made me forget Eleanor Parker,whose natural comic elegance helped me survive the movie.

Frankly, the two performances could not be more dissimilar, with Benanti finding a redeeming poignancy in Elsa, while Parker plays her for some deliciously brittle villainy. Both interpretations work.

And then there’s Carrie Underwood, a quiet revelation as a girlish Maria, in contrast to Julie Andrews’ tomboy.   Underwood got a raw deal from the critics.  To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time she's ever acted and she made her debut on live TV – and she pulled it off with grace.  Yes, her line readings were a little wooden, but she used her face and her gift as a singer in ways that made her real.  Arguably, the most memorable element in this production of “The Sound of Music” was the touching expressiveness always present in Carrie Underwood’s eyes.

Note in Passing:  NBC was so impressed with the response to “The Sound of Music” that the network is already planning a production of “Peter Pan,” originally televised by Producers’ Showcase in both 1955 and 1956 and videotaped in 1960 for an NBC presentation, all starring Mary Martin. 

Presumably, it will want a crossover star like Underwood to bring in another huge audience.  I’ve a suggestion.  Now, don’t laugh – think about this for a bit - but Mylie Cyrus could make a really sensational Peter.

Aside from potentially bringing in a hulking audience, she has the right personality and demeanor for role.  She’s got spunk in spades. 

Plus, that great voice.


Daryl Chin said...

Thanks for that: a genuine appraisal of the NBC production. I also appreciated the Broadway professionalism of Borle, Benanti, and MacDonald. (It should be noted that in the Broadway revival of a decade ago, it was Laura Benanti who played Maria.) And i thought Carrie Underwood did just fine, especially considering she was a novice to acting and dancing. But she's a fine singer, and adapted her usual style to the demands of a Broadway score with a becoming panache. This was far more successful than the attempts in the 1990s to recreate some Broadway musicals for TV, such as the Bette Midler version of GYPSY and the Matthew Broderick version of THE MUSIC MAN, so i hope this continues.

joe baltake said...

Daryl: Thanks for the reminder that Benanti once played the role of Maria on stage. She's a most talented actress-singer. I love that Meron and Zadan are trying to keep the musical alive and bring it to the masses. I agree that their "Gypsy" was a disappointment and that "The Music Man" suffered from a bad casting decision. But their "Cinderella" is terrific, as is their big-screen version of "Hairspray." And "Chicago" is great, despite the misguided opinions of critics who have no affinity for screen musicals.

wwolfe said...

I appreciate your even-handed appraisal of the TV production. I thought Underwood did well enough with her acting, and her singing fully expressed the character of Maria. Laura Benanti was a revelation. I'd seen her in "Royal Pains" and Matthew Perry's "Go On," where she was pleasant. But she stole the show in "The Sound of Music ." I know I'm seeing something special when I find myself casting the actor in other roles as I'm watching the current performance. I was definitely doing that as I watched Benanti in "Sound of Music."

Denise W. said...

For me, NBC's "The Sound of Music" ranks far ahead of the other TV musicals mentioned and others. It was great seeing it the way Rodgers and Hammerstein originally conceived it. Thanks for the fair appraisal!

brad said...

Hey, I enjoyed this production - and do understand that I’m not the biggest fan of the show!

Molly said...

I don't know who was responsible for the show's production design but,given the limitations of live TV, I was most impressed with its spatial arrangements.

Kirsten Hammond said...

Thanks for the great post, Joe. I thought that I was the only one who loved "No Way to Stop It"! Incredible song. I couldn't believe it was stripped from the old film. Of course, someone decided to make Elsa and Max non-singing characters. The only characters who sing in the film are Maria and the kids!

Alex said...

Perhaps the only of the many musical films I’ve seen that I can’t say I’ve enjoyed is THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which I’ve never been able to get more than twenty or so minutes into.

Your analysis of this production has me vaguely interested. Anyone else have any strong opinions of MUSIC that might nudge me into giving it another chance? Or not?

Jim Elsworth said...

Joe: I must confess that the presence of Laura Benanti can compell me into watching just about anything. And,alas,I haven't seen her in that much. Get this woman a starring role! -Jim

Godard said...

I deeply need to see this "Sound of Music," and appreciate the citations of it by Joe and some others here. I likely wasn’t ready for it (because I dislikethe films so much), despite my real appreciation for Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Paul said...

Happy to see your review of "The Sound of Music" special. I really dislike the movie (though my daughter, when she was three, was absolutely enthralled by puppet show in it and still likes a lot of the music), but I'd never seen it on stage and it was interesting to see that, in its own way, it was as tough-minded about the Nazis as "South Pacific" was about racial prejudice. It's a shame that so many people know "Music" from the watered down movie version. Did you see the "South Pacific" revival of a few years? We did when it played LA and it was better than the New York: What a fabulous piece it is, and Nellie's big monologue almost brought tears to our eyes. I too agree the young woman who played Maria in "Music" on TV got a bad rap. Shes got a lovely voice and certainly did an acceptable or better job in the role, and my God, she's certainly, to put it mildly, as easy on the eyes as the ears!