NBC’s live version of The Sound of Music, which aired for three long hours last night, began slow and beautiful, with nuns singing hymns in a stage set abbey. Based on the stage musical—and not the Julie Andrews movie adaptation beloved and memorized by millions (myself included)—the opening took me by surprise, and not just because I was expecting to see Carrie Underwood whirling around in a meadow while belting out “The Hills Are Alive.” (She did scurry around a wood doing that, one scene later.) It was just so anti-spectacular, so stately and calm, patient and slow. The rhythm did something to my brain, tapping into old, creaky pleasure circuits, ones I almost wore out as a kid watching musicals—and especially Mary Martin’s Peter Pan—on VHS, but haven’t used for years.
This staging of The Sound of Music was not perfect, or even really good, but, oh my, it was cozy, the television equivalent of singing “My Favorite Things” while riding out a thunderstorm. Better this strange special event projecting sincerity and effort than another one of NBC’s cynical, awful sitcoms that will never, ever have a moment as glorious as Audra McDonald singing “Climb Every Mountain” even if it runs long enough to get a syndication deal.
Re-staging The Sound of Music live is an odd thing to do. It’s a trick, an excuse for it not to be top quality, not to cost a ton of money, not to look great, and not to compete “directly” with memories of the movie. But all these compromises—except, maybe for Carrie Underwood’s inability to act—lent themselves to the show’s out-of-time vibe. The actor’s mics were always open, so there was a constant, unprofessional hum to their silences. It was sometimes day and sometimes night in the hills, but it was always night in the hills’ backdrop. The budget appeared to have been taken out of Maria’s wedding dress and put into swastika banners. A Nazi showed up late in the proceedings looking like a shady P.I. (Had he grabbed his leather jacket and brimmed hat from some community theater’s costume stash? That would also explain why Rolf’s shorts barely fit.)
There was, in other words, a make-work community theater feeling to the whole production. And while Twitter suggests that drove some people mad, I found it sweet. How trusting—though, sure, there are other words—to bet on the viewing public’s better angels, their ability to look past the flaws in the age of Twitter. How very Maria-like!
And something in this production needed to be Maria-like. Underwood can sing, but she can’t act. With braids wrapped around her head like a barmaid handing out beer steins, Underwood acquitted herself well enough on the songs. But she turned every spoken scene into an on-the-fly translation emergency: What did Julie Andrews do in this scene? If I could remember what Julie did, maybe I could understand the emotion Underwood was failing to communicate, the joke she wasn’t telling. At one point I thought that Underwood had botched a line—she called the Captain “reverend” by accident—but when I watched that part of the movie, I saw Julie Andrews had done it too. When she did it, it seemed like the character’s mistake, not the actress’.
When Maria is not a delightful flibbertigibbet, Sound of Music has some really serious emotional holes. What, the Captain (played by Stephen Moyer, better than Underwood, his cheekbones ready to cut someone) just turns into a nice dad after he sees his kids sing once? He picks the ill-dressed, awkward, humorless nanny over the sexy, savvy Baroness Schraeder (the great Laura Benanti)? Maria and the Captain are in love after a handful of really awkward conversations and one kiss, in which he tries to suck her face off?
Maria’s charisma matters. When she’s a black hole, the show becomes the Captain’s—he’s the other character with an arc—but in this case, it became Audra McDondald’s.
McDonald, who has won five Tonys (and also appeared for many years on Private Practice) probably should have been playing Maria herself, but then we wouldn’t have gotten to hear her sing “Climb Every Mountain,” a performance so powerful and perfect I really do believe it brought tears to Underwood’s eyes (unless it was the best acting she did all night). The thing about hiring experienced Broadway stars is that it transforms live-television from a “weird human trick where anything can go wrong!” into what it should be, and is every night in the theaters of midtown, an occasion for excellence. McDonald couldn’t have been better if she had pre-taped that song dozens and dozens of times.
As on Broadway, stunt casting sells tickets, but it’s a ticket to a lousy show: Underwood may be famous, but McDonald, Benanti, Christian Borle (playing Max) and all the young Von Trapps acted and sang circles around her. Next year, NBC should make the live-musical into a holiday tradition—given the huge ratings they got last night, they surely will—and they should turn next to … Oklahoma? Guys and Dolls? Or, dare I hope, Peter Pan? (Cut down to 2 hours this time, and without Walmart commercials.) May they only cast people trained for the job. I’ll be curled up on the couch to watch.