The Sound of Music remains one of the most popular and performed of all musicals. This 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein show, telling the story of the former convent novice Maria and the singing children of Captain von Trapp, was extremely successful in its original Broadway run. But the 1964 film, starring Julie Andrews as Maria, was even more successful.
Oscar Hammerstein II was not merely one of the greatest Broadway lyricists. He was also the best and most influential of all musical theatre librettists, or playwrights. He did not write the Sound of Music libretto, which was provided by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Yet he did write the songs with composer Richard Rodgers, and it is the songs that make this show resonate.
Recently, on December 5th, NBC featured a live television version of The Sound of Music with country star Carrie Underwood as Maria. This is risky business, in that any version will suffer comparison with the film, and any Maria will contend with Julie Andrews. It is also risky in having the actors and technicians work live on national TV.
Live TV drama was the norm in the 1950’s, and while actors worked under stress and sometimes made mistakes, the form prospered. Rodgers and Hammerstein even wrote a musical for live TV. Shown in 1957, and featuring a very young Julie Andrews, Cinderella had actors moving about on very cramped sets.
The new Sound of Music was done on expansive sets. The newer technology also allowed a full orchestra to be used, as opposed to the smaller Broadway orchestras. The results were somewhat mixed. While Carrie Underwood is a gifted singer, she seemed inexperienced in acting. The new Captain von Trapp, Stephen Moyer, is also a good singer, but he was a bit over the top in his acting. His German accent, shown in his first scene, was soon lost.
Yet the performances had their bright spots. Tony winner Laura Benanti brought skill and vivacity to her role as Else, the Captain’s initial love interest. Christian Borle, who recently was Tom on NBC’s Smash, made a convincing Max, the agent who contrives to have the family sing in the Salzburg festival.
The children were a delight. But best of all was Audra McDonald as the mother superior. Ms. McDonald is great both as a singer and actress. A stage veteran, she adjusted her performance well to the TV medium.
Whatever faults this production had, it was a worthy experiment. There should be more live broadcasts of musicals.