I was out of the country when “The Sound of Music Live!” aired on NBC, but I wasn’t out of reach of the explosion of Internet rage that surfaced on every media outlet from the New York Times to tweets by DiGiorno Pizza in response to it.
The national simulcast was a massive ratings hit for the network, with nearly 20 million viewers. Critics’ responses ranged from “meh” to tepid approval. But blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other online media exploded with righteous fury at what they saw as a bastardization of everyone’s favorite anti-Nazi childhood classic.
It has never been my dream to launch a defense of Carrie Underwood—that human representation of statistics about what “real Americans” like, with her forgettable, twangy music and constant invocation of a higher power—but here goes.
It was all but universally acknowledged that Carrie Underwood was not suited to the role of Maria. From the moment that she and her globular hairdo were introduced in promotional material to the event of her expressionless performance, it was clear that America’s one-time idol would not bear comparison with Julie Andrews. I do not deny that Underwood’s drama skills are impoverished, and I agree with the accusations that her singing, so listenable in her own work, was stylistically unsuited to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s (CC ’23 and CC ’16!) music.
Carrie Underwood was the right choice for Austria’s most hapless nanny because of her popular appeal. Musical theater was once America’s favorite artistic pastime. Broadway stars performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” families purchased records of “The Music Man,” and theater was enjoyed not just by “theater kids,” but by anyone who watched movies. Now most Broadway shows that succeed are major blockbuster productions, forcing producers to invest in shows that take fewer risks artistically. The Broadway musical has suffered for over a decade because of its reputation as a tired, expensive, marginal art form.
If it takes Carrie Underwood’s inappropriate belting to renew national interest in musical theater, so be it. The millions of families who gathered to watch the broadcast experienced musical theater almost as they would have in a Broadway theater. The production was lavish, it was a classic musical filled with first-rate talent, and most importantly, it was live. With our proximity to Broadway theaters and opportunities for discounted tickets, Columbia and Barnard students may easily forget that access to live theater, especially of Broadway quality, is a privilege few possess. Most Americans don’t have $250 to spend on tickets for each of their family members at theaters that are only a subway ride away. NBC gave the public an opportunity to access professional-quality theater, and in making that theater live, it let children who have never seen the curtain rise over a professional stage feel the anticipation, fear, and joy of watching a real musical.
Those who derided the performances of Underwood and her co-star Stephen Moyer forget that “The Sound of Music Live!” provided jobs to dozens of musical theater professionals, and not only the inimitable Audra McDonald. Most of the actors hired for smaller parts and to fill the ensemble were not Hollywood stars, but the same singers and dancers who make their living as theater performers.
I am a great lover of snark, but I was ashamed at the response of fellow musical theater lovers, and even that of the cast of the original movie and surviving members of the von Trapp family. The criticism I heard was not just about the production itself, but the gall of NBC to attempt it.
Yes, how dare Americans be provided with free culture? How dare a major network attempt to engage with a family classic?
Theater is not the property of wealthy, East Coast intellectuals. “The Sound of Music Live!” allowed the tradition of the “Great American Musical” to be shared with millions of people who would not normally have access to it. The more national networks and mainstream media outlets choose to produce and share musical theater, the more artists are employed, and the more life can be explored and celebrated through song and dance onstage.
If you didn’t like “The Sound of Music Live!” get even by supporting live theater and engaging with art in a way that is meaningful to you. Just make sure it involves yodeling and puppets.
Jenny Singer is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. Singer on Broadway runs alternate Fridays.