NBC aired a live performance of The Sound of Music last night, and theatre performers and aficionados panned it in spectacular and vitriolic fashion. It quite clearly became a competition to see how creatively each person could say they hated it more than the next person. I find that disappointing and somewhat sad.
The hatred was almost completely and exclusively directed at Carrie Underwood. I will happily agree that her acting was elementary at best. She earnestly and one-dimensionally delivered all of the lines and hit all of her marks and made it through an entire three hour show (I point this out because in an era where professional actors cannot make it through a three minute SNL sketch without obviously reading cue cards, it does show she was committed to this endeavor), but no, she is obviously no Julie Andrew or Mary Martin. However, I will give her credit for surprisingly excellent vocals in the original Martin keys rather than the film keys adjusted for Andrews.
That said, this production would not have happened without Carrie Underwood. There is not a single Broadway performer that NBC would have bet this risky undertaking on. Not one. Five-time Tony Winner Audra McDonald would not have had the opportunity to deliver the best version of “Climb Every Mountain” from any production ever without Carrie Underwood’s name and face out front. So hem and haw and hate all you want, it happened because of that former American Idol’s name, success and relevancy in pop culture.
I do understand the frustration. Yes, there are dozens of far more talented performers appropriate for the role who would have given the show the core of life and nuance it needed to truly soar. I hear the well-articulated argument that those knowledgeable or trained in theatre should not have to be happy with “what we get” if what we get is not good.
The problem is this argument is naive. Theatre has been losing it’s relevancy in the national art discussion and pop culture dialogue outside of New York City for a very long time. The cost of seeing theatre in New York, or even the vast majority of the national tours now, makes attending the theatre an option only for the wealthy or the middle class willing to splurge.
It’s also important to recognize that this production was an enormous risk. For the network and for Carrie. A live theatrical event of this size and scope has not been broadcast live on network television since long before the advent of social media. It just isn’t done anymore, and for the theatre purists unaware or uninterested in the Hollywood TV/film part of the business – those of us on the west coast can guarantee you that this was a hard sell to make happen at all. And let’s not pretend that the Broadway world is immune to the benefits of stunt casting to get people in the seats for everything from limited run plays to the Tony’s.
All of it is sad. All of it is frustrating. The impact of film and television on theatre, whether in who gets cast, or what show gets adapted for Broadway because it stands a chance of recouping the enormous investment it takes to make it happen does limit the ability of innovative or challenging or risky theatre to reach the masses. It just seems that all of that frustration about all everything from Shrek The Musical to trained and talented theatre actors who cannot get seen for great film and television roles was unloaded last night on Carrie Underwood, and that just is not completely fair.
In the end, hopefully NBC will see last night as a huge success. 18.5 million people watched the show, the largest non-sports NBC Thursday night since the Frasier finale in 2004. (For the record, it would take twenty 3000-seat theatres nearly a year of performing every night of the week to reach that many people.) Along with all of the theatre performers and fans who tuned in, there was also a rare opportunity for people who cannot afford to go to the theatre or who may not think it would interest them to check it out.
The danger of last night’s reaction is that so many networks now pay a great deal of attention to the reaction of social media. The result could be that they do not read “do it better next time” in the incredibly hostile reaction last night, but instead simply hear “don’t do it, we’ll never be happy.”
I’m not saying don’t complain. I’m not saying the arguments about better casting choices are not true. I’m not saying you aren’t entitled to say loudly and repeatedly how much you hated it. However, I wonder how many people who absolutely hated what they saw took the time to tweet, facebook or write to NBC and say “thank you so much for being the first network in modern memory to attempt to bring the magic of live theatre performances to a larger audience, and we hope you’ll take even greater risks next time to ensure the performances live up to the material.” If all NBC hears is “it was terrible” they just may decide it isn’t worth doing again. That’s a loss for all of us.
The complete annihilation of the entire event also belies some successes. Audra. Audra. And Audra again. The use of the set in the limited sound stage was great, and quite a bit of the camera work and blocking was incredibly intricate and interesting. A couple of the transitions actually managed to convey the magic of the theatre. Yes there are many things that can be done better, but if they don’t attempt it again – that won’t ever matter.
I just find it sad that while my greatest respect is often reserved for artists trained to give an entire performance all the way through live in front of audience, it seems so few last night were willing to give an inch at all for the practical realities of the business of art and applaud the effort. We’ve all greeted someone after a show and had to search for the compliment that wouldn’t be a lie and would still make the person feel good so they could continue doing the show feeling confident in their work.
“I’m glad they did it.” No matter the wide ranging opinions of the success or complete failure of the endeavor, this is something those that truly love the theatre should truly be able to say. It becomes harder and harder to interest new audiences in the work we do without a star name or a known title. If this was the first glimpse a lower middle class kid somewhere with no access to live theatre had of our world, I will stand by that it was indeed still a very good thing.
And I hope Katharine McPhee called Carrie Underwood this morning and said, “Girl, I know, don’t worry, you’ll get through it.”