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As anyone who read my last blog entry would know, I was eagerly anticipating NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music, which finally aired last night after months of hype, and it seems like everyone was talking about it online. It was on Twitter, Facebook, the BroadwayWorld message boards, and many other places online, and I can’t remember the last time (if ever) I have seen so much buzz for a theatre-related event among the general public. The show also apparently drew huge ratings for the night, and today, people are still talking about it (good and bad). As for my own thoughts, I think this was overall a positive night for theatre and the production itself was entertaining if not perfect.

This biggest reason for all the hype surrounding this event was the casting of Carrie Underwood as Maria. She was the undisputed main draw of this production, and I defended her casting in my last article when I had only heard clips of her singing and hadn’t seen her act the role, so I was particularly curious to see how she would perform in the show. I think the best way to describe her performance is “un-polished, but earnest”. Underwood was obviously trying her best, emphasizing Maria’s youth and naivete, but her lack of acting experience was apparent.  Early in the performance, she appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by nerves and simply seemed to be reciting lines, except when she sang and she was more in her element. Then, about halfway through the first act, after a particularly rousing and charming rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd” with the well-cast group of Von Trapp children, Underwood started to loosen up, and had some genuinely convincing moments, such as her confrontation of Captain Von Trapp (Stephen Moyer) about his neglect of his children, her reactions to The Mother Abbess’s (Audra McDonald) glorious “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain”, and a nice little moment with McDonald before the Captain and Maria’s wedding, where Underwood seemed to finally let go of any residual nervousness and displayed a warm, genuine smile. Underwood has an inherent likability about her that, I think, made her deficiencies as an actress a little easier to bear, and her voice was strong in the musical numbers. Overall, she came across as a singer and not an actress.  She did seem to have some flashes of acting talent there, though, and I would be curious to see her try more roles in the future, with some training (but starting with smaller projects than this one).

As for the rest of the cast, the Broadway veterans were, to my mind, the real stars of this show. Every moment Audra McDonald was onscreen, she got my attention with her strong, authoritative but warm characterization and that glorious voice of hers, which was best highlighted in the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.   She also seemed to help make Underwood’s performance stronger in all of their scenes together. Laura Benanti was the best Elsa Schraeder I’ve ever seen, bringing all the wit and sophistication, as well as much more sympathy  to the character than usual, and her scenes with Christian Borle as the enterprising Max Detweiler were particularly well done. Borle brought intelligence and charm to his performance, as well, and I was also impressed by the strong performances of Kristine Nielsen as the Von Trapps’ housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Sean Cullen as butler Franz. The children, led by the winning performances of Ariane Rinehart as Liesl, Sophia Caruso as Brigitta and Joe West as Kurt, were well-cast and engaging, performing their scenes with energy and a good sense of familial rapport, and in great voice on numbers like “The Lonely Goatherd” and “The Sound of Music”.

Some of the casting was more problematic, however. Michael Campayno as Rolf the delivery boy is nice-looking and had a good voice, but seemed too old for the much more youthful-looking Rinehart as Liesl, and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had some charm but ultimately lacked believability. Moyer as Captain Von Trapp was more of a one-note characterization, and his chemistry with Underwood seemed more friendly than romantic, but he did have a bit of a nice moment with “Edelweiss” late in the production.

In terms of the production as a whole, which was directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller, I thought it had the look of a daytime soap opera in terms of filming, but the sets by Derek McLane were stunning, from the forested hills to the grandeur of the Abbey and the opulence of the Von Trapp villa.  I also thought the changes between scenes were clever and well-executed, especially the transition from the Von Trapps’ mansion to the music festival towards the end of the show. There were some strange camera angles, though, and too many shots of the backs of people’s heads, and the costuming mostly ranged from good enough (for most of the performers) to unflattering (most of Underwood’s outfits in the second act). The sound was muddled, with an odd background humming during the dialogue scenes. The mixture of the pre-recorded orchestral tracks with the live vocals seemed disjointed, especially in the Abbey scenes with the nuns and at the end when McDonald’s reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was drowned out by the music. Some of the pacing also suffered because of the lack of a live audience, and I hope that if NBC ever does this again with another musical, they will include an audience. I think some of the audience feedback may have helped less-confident actors like Underwood find their energy, and it might have helped with the flow of the production as well.

Despite the production’s flaws, this is an amazing event in terms of exposure for musical theatre to the general public. The net was alive with the buzz surrounding this production last night, and I hope NBC capitalizes on that by producing more live broadcasts of musicals. Perhaps they could find a star performer with a little more confidence in the acting department and have even more success the second time around. Still, even with its limitations, I view The Sound of Music Live as a success, and I’m glad I was able to see it and engage in some great discussions with friends and acquaintances online.  I hope this leads to bigger and better developments for musical theatre on TV in the future.

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There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which airs tomorrow night on NBC and stars country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (from HBO’s True Blood) as Captain Von Trapp. I’m looking forward to this production because I think live theatre on television is a great thing. It harks back to the days of other live musical events such as Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. If this broadcast is successful, I could imagine it leading to more live musical broadcasts in the future, and I hope so. I still keep seeing a lot of skepticism about this production online, though, either because of the casting of Underwood or because people seem to think of this as a remake of the film (which it is not), so I thought I would offer just a little bit of information about this production and what it is, and what it is not.

I know many viewers will be familiar with the movie and not the play, but to quote that great philosopher Yoda—“you must unlearn what you have learned”.   This is The Sound of Music, but in a way you may have never seen before. It’s the same basic story, and there will still be a whole lot of singing, dancing and yodeling, but this is the play, not the film. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind as you watch The Sound of Music Live:

1. “Where’s That Song?” The film adds two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote on his own specifically for that adaptation: “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (Oscar Hammerstein II had died before the film was made). Several stage revivals have added these songs as well, but this production will apparently only be using “Something Good”, which was written to replace the original stage show’s beyond bland love duet, “An Ordinary Couple”, a song Rodgers himself apparently wasn’t happy with. Basically, what you will be seeing here, with one exception, are the songs from the 1959 original Broadway production in their original order and context.

2. “New Songs?” Not so New The original stage play contains two very witty numbers for Max and Elsa—“No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” that are sorely missed (by me, anyway) in the film. I look forward especially to seeing these great songs being performed by celebrated Broadway stars Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, and bringing an air of sharp, sophisticated humor to the show that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

3. The Same, But Different Several of the songs in the show are in different places in the stage play than they are in the film, such as “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd” (there’s no puppet show), and “Do Re Mi” (same general idea, but it’s earlier in the play). Also, “Edelweiss” is in the play, but only in one of the scenes it appears in on film. The plot is the same as the film, but many of the individual scenes and plot developments are different. While I personally think the film script, for the most part, is superior to the stage script, the stage script when performed well is highly engaging and entertaining. It’s all slightly different, but it’s still The Sound of Music, and if this production lives up to its promise, it should be well worth watching.

4. Carrie Underwood as Maria? Why Not? I was dismayed to read that Underwood has received “hate tweets” because she dared take on a role that has been played in such an iconic fashion by Julie Andrews in the film. Underwood, however, has never claimed to be trying to usurp or imitate Andrews, and in fact, nobody “owns” a role. Andrews (who has had nothing but good things to say about Underwood) was not even the first Maria in The Sound of Music, nor was she the last. There have been many excellent and acclaimed stage Marias, starting with Mary Martin on Broadway in 1959 and including Petula Clark (1981 London Revival), Rebecca Luker (1998 Broadway Revival), Connie Fisher (2006 London Revival), and this production’s Elsa Schraeder, Laura Benanti, who (at age 19) replaced Luker in the ’98 revival. The role has been played by countless actresses of varying levels of notoriety in regional and touring productions, as well.

While Andrews’s name and voice will always be associated with the role for many people, and she was certainly wonderful in the film, this is a classic and much-played role, and Carrie Underwood is in excellent company. Whether she is able to convincingly act the part remains to be seen, but judging from the clips I’ve heard of the newly-released Cast Recording, she’s more than up for the task vocally. She has obviously worked hard to learn to adapt her voice from singing country-pop to singing musical theatre, and all that work has paid off. She sounds great, and I hope she’ll be able make a positive impression with her acting as well.

5. All-Star Cast (and they mean it!) Personally, I would be tuning into this production no matter who played Maria, simply because of the extremely talented supporting cast. Apart from Underwood, Moyer, and the children, this show is full of big-name Broadway veterans. Benanti, Borle and the glorious-voiced Audra McDonald (who plays the Mother Abbess) are all Tony winners, and even the nuns’ chorus is chock full of high-caliber Broadway performers, and even leading ladies like Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). There are more Broadway performers in this ensemble than I can easily highlight. This is a theatre geek’s dream, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but even non-Broadway fans should know the depth of talent in this production, and that so many of the cast members from the major supporting players to the ensemble are top-quality performers with years of stage experience.

To sum up my advice—if you don’t know anything but the film, please try to put your pre-conceived notions aside and see this production for what it is. Judge it on its own merits—and it seems to have a lot of them. This is promising to be a truly remarkable television event, and I hope it lives up to that promise.

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Smash on NBC

So, it’s back! The show that both fascinated and frustrated me as a fan of all things musical theatre, NBC’s Smash, has returned with a vengeance and a whole lot of promise.  Gone are some of the most annoying characters and plotlines, and hopefully the playing field has been evened out a bit between Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty) and the focus has been shifted to more than just Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe bio-show that was the center of last season’s storylines.  This year, there are more musicals in the mix, and more composers, as well as new characters and performers, a new writing team and a fresh new outlook.  The first episode was a whole lot of fun—majoring on the theatre industry and the drama surrounding it, and with a lot of nods to real-life Broadway with cameos by Harvey Fierstein, Michael Riedel (again) and other luminaries.  It had a much more “insider” vibe this time but it wasn’t too insular.  So far it’s all looking very intriguing and I hope all the housecleaning will have paid off.   I’m cautiously optimistic.

I like that they seem to be letting Karen be the bitch sometimes, as opposed to last season where she was supposed to be the “nice girl” and came across as a bitch anyway more often than not.  If this show wants us to root for her, they have to give us a reason to rather than just telling us how awesome she is over and over, and letting her be a real person rather than a straw princess is a good start.  She still acts ridiculously entitled especially in her interactions with director Derek (Jack  Davenport), but this time I get the impression that we’re supposed to think that about her, which is a nice change.

Conversely, they’re dialing down the bitchiness with Ivy’s character and letting her be the sympathetic one for once.  I really liked how this episode seemed to be setting the stage for an equalization of the characters rather than last season’s forced “Karen is so AMAZING!  Forget about how great a performer Ivy is and how she owns the screen whenever she performs—she’s the VILLAIN, remember? Look at all the awful things we’ve written for her to do—sleeping with Dev! Taking pills! See? See? Isn’t she such a BITCH!??”

I found that frustrating because all the skewing just made me like Karen less and root for Ivy more.  This season, which seems to be focusing on both equally for once, already seems to be an improvement.  I hope the equalization continues, because for me Hilty was the real breakout star of this show, and I’m glad they’re backing off on the “oh, she’s supposed to be the villain” angle and let her have the show’s biggest moment with her solo at the American Theatre Wing gala, which was outstanding.

I also like that they are focusing more on another of my favorite aspects of last season—the relationship between musical writing partners Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle).  These two have such an interesting a believable relationship, as creative partners and as best friends.  I’ve found it the most potentially fascinating relationship on this show—more so than any of the romantic pairings.

There are appealing new characters as well, like Jeremy Jordan’s Jimmy and Andy Mientus’s Kyle, who work in a restaurant/bar in Brooklyn but are working on a new musical and hoping to make it big, and songs from more real-life composers like Pasek and Paul, Joe Iconis and others, in addition to more Bombshell  songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  Also, according to the previews and promotional materials, there will be more guest stars this season in addition to Jennifer Hudson (as Broadway star Veronica Moore), who appeared in the premiere and is expected to have a recurring role this season.  It will be fun to see appearances by Liza Minnelli (as herself), Sean Hayes (as a Broadway actor in another musical) and the returning and always amazing Broadway legend Bernadette Peters as Ivy’s mother, Broadway legend Leigh Conroy.

I’ve read a lot of comments online from last season and in the lead-up to this one about how this is a very popular show for “hate-watching”–basically watching it expecting to be amused by how bad it is.  I’m a little different in my approach to this show, because I don’t hate-watch.  I “hope-watch”.  I look forward to each new episode hoping that this show will live up to its incredible potential.  Last season I ended up being disappointed a lot of the time, but there was still a lot that I enjoyed.  Now it’s a new year and a fresh start and I’m all set to hope-watch for another season.  Here’s hoping it’s a good one.

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Smash

Pilot Thoughts

I watched the preview of the pilot for the new NBC drama Smash, the much-hyped series about the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe.  I hope to blog about it each week as new episodes air, but these are my initial thoughts about the pilot and concept itself.

First off, it’s Broadway, and I love that.  This is the show about Broadway that theatre fans like me have been hoping for after being teased by Glee (which uses some musical theatre songs but isn’t really about musical theatre). The pilot showed a lot of promise, and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Also, although I understand the initial comparisons by viewers (including myself in this post) to Glee, I hope they will stop soon because Smash is its own show. Aside from having musical numbers, this is nothing like Glee, which is only about Broadway when it wants to be (and it mostly doesn’t).  I gave up on Glee midway through the second season and tried to watch it again in the third only to give up again because the writing and characterizations were too inconsistent.  I have high hopes that Smash will fare better in the consistency department (and hopefully will have much less AutoTune). Here are my initial thoughts:

Positives–I am a self-confessed theatre geek, so anything about theatre is going to get me watching, at least at first.  I also love that they’ve put in some references to shows, performers and writers that real Broadway buffs will recognize.  I also like that it shows the development of the show from the ground up, taking us through the whole process, from writing to demos, to finding a producer (Anjelica Huston) and director, to casting and (in upcoming episodes) workshops and rehearsals.  Also, I like the focus on two common “types” in the running for the role of Marilyn—the Broadway ensemble member who dreams of getting a lead (Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn), and the complete newcomer who waits tables while auditioning and hoping for her big break (Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright).  The characters seem interesting, if not fully developed yet (it’s only a pilot)–the snarky, randy British director (Jack Davenport), the playwright/lyricist (Debra Messing) who is trying to juggle a career and family, Karen’s too-perfect boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey), and more.  I love the interaction between Messing and Christian Borle as the composer.  I loved the musical numbers, and the very New York vibe to the show.  Actually filming in the Big Apple definitely adds to the authenticity of the show.

Reservations—Some of the plot elements are very obviously Hollywood trying to do Broadway and seem contrived to hold the audience’s attention–the “private meeting” at his apartment that the director calls with Karen, the book writer’s family issues, the composer’s grudge against the director, the producer’s big messy divorce, etc.  It seems like all the players involved have a whole lot of heavy personal drama in addition to their work on the musical, but it’s TV and that’s what TV shows do.  I’m OK with all of that if the story holds my attention.  I do wonder, though, that even though I love all the Broadway insider vibes, if those might turn off casual viewers who don’t follow the theatre world closely.  I hope it will draw more fans to musical theatre, but the jury is still out on whether it will.

I also don’t know if I  buy all the “she’s an undiscovered STAR” hype they’re building around the Karen character. The ads I saw during the Super Bowl were about Katharine McPhee as much as they were about the show, with Megan Hilty barely getting any screentime. McPhee is a very good singer and I remember that I wanted her to win her season of American Idol (back when I still watched it), but Hilty as Ivy is excellent as well, even though the show definitely seems weighted to get the audience to support Karen over Ivy. From my perspective, though, Ivy seems better suited for the part from the outset and seems more of a complete performer (singing, dancing and acting) than Karen has been shown to be. I do like that it’s not a black-and-white “hero vs. villain” angle, though, and both characters are sympathetic in their own ways. We will see how it all unfolds, and I will definitely keep watching.

I hope this show will catch on with the general public enough for a full season, and I look forward to seeing how the story develops.  Let’s see if Smash really will be a smashing success.

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