Saturday, December 14, 2013

Impressions of Carrie Underwood's The Sound of Music

Since I have been weighing in on modern movie musicals, I could not resist the opportunity to comment on Carrie Underwood's version of The Sound of Music, which was aired last Thursday to big ratings and will be airing again tonight.  True, it is not exactly the same thing -- it is not a movie musical, but a televised version of the original stage musical of The Sound of Music.  Yet it stands in the long, deep shadow of the 1965 movie The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews, with every note destined to be compared.  (Though I have not yet reviewed movies older than 20 years, let me just say that this movie will not appear on the Wrong list.)

Really, this was a can't win situation from the get-go.  Underwood and the brain trust behind the televised version deserve credit for chutzpah alone.  Beyond that, was this a successful musical on its own terms?  Well... kind of.  To the extent that it wasn't, it can't all be blamed on Underwood's performance.

1.  Acting vs. Singing.  As many have noted, there is a sizable gap between Underwood's singing and her acting ability.  Her singing was actually quite good for the most part; expecting more of a limited vocal range, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Underwood hit the highest notes without noticeable struggle.  She never matches the silvery, floating tones of Andrews, but still does well enough to be perfectly adequate in a stage production.  That is, if only her acting were up to par.  Most of Underwood's line readings would be at home in a high school production.  Though at least she appears to have all of her lines memorized.

2.  Change Is Good.  Even more jarring than Underwood in the lead role are the differences between the movie musical and the stage musical.  With the exception of one song, the televised version follows the stage musical, which most of us have never seen.  I didn't even know that there were lyrics before "The hills are alive!" until I listened to Mary Martin's "The Sound of Music" on YouTube.  However, that is the least of the differences.

Most of the differences favor the movie, and I'm not just saying that because I grew up with it.  The movie improves the pacing considerably, ups the tension, and delivers emotional moments much more effectively.  Some key differences include:

  • In the stage version, "My Favorite Things" is sung at the abbey before Maria leaves to go live with the Von Trapps, whereas in the movie, Maria sings it to the Von Trapp children during a thunder storm.  In the stage version, "The Lonely Goatherd" is sung during the thunder storm, with no Captain Von Trapp bursting in at the end.  
  • In the movie version, Maria spends some time gaining the Von Trapp children's favor before she teaches them to sing "Do-Re-Mi."  In the stage version, within minutes of meeting them, she has her guitar out and the Von Trapp children are singing.  It is possible that the televised stage version needed to be shortened, cutting some getting-to-know-you sequences, but regardless, Maria seems to gain the children's trust very quickly.
  • In the stage version, Captain Von Trapp doesn't sing "Edelweiss" until the music festival, whereas in the movie, he sings it once earlier.
  • In the stage version, Elsa Schrader and Max Detweiler have a rather amusing song called "How Can Love Survive?" about love between two rich people, as well as a song about accepting the inevitability of German invasion.  In the movie version, both songs are cut, as Baroness Schrader's dry humor is delivered by dialogue only.  "How Can Love Survive?" is one of the few songs I wish the movie version had kept.   
  • In the stage version, Brigitta tells Maria that Captain Von Trapp is in love with her, whereas in the movie version, the Baroness does it to get Maria out of the picture.  I always thought it was a bit odd that the Baroness would openly acknowledge that her fiance was lusting after someone else, so it makes sense that originally she was not the one who told Maria.
As noted, most of the changes vastly improve the musical.  Especially the moving of "My Favorite Things" to later -- "Goatherd" is far from a great song, and in the televised stage version, "My Favorite Things" leads to awkward moments like Maria sitting on a desk with the Mother Abbess, kicking their legs in unison.

The iconic Maria, Julie Andrews.
Without the changes, The Sound of Music feels a lot slower and with lower stakes.  For instance, instead of the thunder storm scene being one that leads to Maria winning over the Von Trapp children, it's just a throw-away scene that lets Maria practice her yodeling while the Von Trapp children sing under the bed.

3.  Supporting Players.  The surrounding cast is mostly okay.  They range from standouts like Laura Benati (Elsa Schrader), Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess), and Christian Borle (Max Detweiler) to decent (Ariane Rinart as Liesl and Michael Campayno as Rolf) to pretty unmemorable (the rest of the Von Trapp children) to stiff and awful (Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp).

Moyer in particular is a disappointment.  Though he can sing, he does not project much of a personality and has no chemistry with Carrie Underwood.  I will give him this, though: he does seem to genuinely love his children, which is more than I could say for Christopher Plummer's Captain Von Trapp.

4.  Once More With Feeling.  Between the poor pacing of the stage version and the uneven cast, the televised version lacks energy.  Part of that can also be attributed to the choice to film in a studio rather than on stage in front of an audience.  I'm not sure a limp, bored audience would have improved things, but surely the cast would have worked harder to get their energy up.

So overall, this version of The Sound of Music is not horrible, but it is pretty forgettable.  The two biggest positives are that its ratings will likely pave the way for more televised live musicals, and that it resurrected the original stage version, which had mostly lain dormant since the movie came out.  Mostly for good reason, although it is at least interesting to see the origins of one of the most beloved musicals of all time.


Above clip was embedded with the permission of NBC (see website) and the above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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