NBC’s 3-hour Sound Of Music Live (12/5) featuring Nashville superstar Carrie Underwood, was a rebirth of sorts, using the 1959 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical as a trusty vehicle to return live theater to living rooms across America’s.
“With so much [TV] now being watched on DVRs and through video-on-demand, the need for live telecasts is greater than ever,” Jennifer Salke, President, NBC Entertainment tells Advertising Age. “We must give a reason for viewers to feel like if they miss a live event, they will miss out on the [social media] conversation the next day.”
“The Sound of Music Live! is the latest —and easily the riskiest —effort by network television to create DVR-proof programming,” said Craig Zadan, who produced the show with partner Neil Meron. (Zadan and Meron also produced this year’s highly rated Oscar telecast.)
“I want to watch as it’s happening—that’s magic,” noted Stephen Moyer, who co-stared with Underwood. “We live in a world where we have the ability to watch live, and yet we don’t do that very often.”
Reinterpreting the role of Maria was a brave career decision for the American Idol alum that generated early criticism as fans tweeted and commented across social media that Ms. Underwood shouldn’t be tampering with legendary performances from Julie Andrews (film version) or Mary Martin (stage).
In retrospect, however, the production’s ratings proved a massive success. Over 18.5 million total viewers were watching as Underwood and Moyer (True Blood) recreated the roles of Maria and Captain Von Trapp. The key 18-49 demo got a 4.6 rating making it the best Thursday evening on NBC since the series finale of ER in April 2009. The $9 million production also spawned a savvy CD-music package containing 22 songs that was available immediately after the show aired.
Unfortunately, the critics were not as one sided in their judgements as the viewership ratings. Variety’s Brian Lowry praised NBC’s valor saying, “Give NBC credit for tackling the challenge, in trump-the-DVR-age fashion, with The Sound of Music Live!, even if the actual production too often felt as lifeless as those alpine backdrops.” Especially cutting was his remark about the Maria/Von Trapp relationship, “Given the absence of chemistry, one could be forgiven for hoping he’d lapse into True Blood mode and simply bite her neck.”
The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever called the production, “Disappointingly stiff,” but added, “I don’t mean travesty.” He continued, “You can salute Underwood’s strong vocals and her bravery in stepping into the role, but it’s impossible not to notice that she can’t act. When Underwood spoke her lines, she was as flat as the label on a Swiss Miss package of cocoa…Only the fantastic Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess left a lasting impression.”
“While no one could replace the legendary Julie Andrews we have to admit we totally fell in love with Carrie Underwood as Maria…” said critic Andy Swift for Hollywood Life. He also praised Mother Abbess, “If you didn’t shed at least a single tear during her [Audra McDonald] operatic performance of ‘Climb Every Mountain’ you’re straight up lying…”
Slate TV critic Willa Paskin felt something that may explain why the show’s ratings were so successful. “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. 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.”
Paskin said the production’s community theatre quality was “sweet,” but there was “a constant unprofessional hum to all the silences.” Evaluating Underwood’s starring role Paskin said, “[she] can sing, but she can’t act. 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.”
In a review titled “The Hills Are Barely Alive,” The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon called the experience, simply “exhausting.” “Underwood sounded astounding,” he praised … every time she was asked to …belt. But whether it was because of nerves or lack of experience, her acting was painfully lifeless and amateur throughout the first two thirds of the lengthy ordeal.” Fallon admits however, that despite the project’s creative drawbacks, Underwood won him over, saying “though she was nowhere near perfect, one country singer with an extra-large Heidi braid had enough energy to make up for that.”
As for this writer, I found myself overlooking the production’s flaws, enjoying the live theater experience and and totally awed by the incredible songwriting and storytelling of Rodgers and Hammerstein. One must admire Underwood’s spunk for taking on a challenge rife with comparisons that she must have known would serve her up as the main course on the critic’s buffet. But “Maria” stood strong, over 18 million people watched, and NBC won their gambit.
According to the New York Times, “This gamble —live theater on network television, a throwback to earlier eras of the medium and events like “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella” — paid off so well it is almost a certainty that the network will be looking for other musicals to mount live around holidays.” Can’t wait!