Lest we forget: before “The Sound of Music” went live, the Captain and Maria reunited “On Golden Pond”

While I’ve been reading a lot on social media about last night’s live version of “The Sound of Music”—I joined the production in progress,  just before Carrie Underwood ran back to the convent and heard about mountain-climbing—few people have mentioned television’s last big experiment in live theater.

It was a dud.

And it also had a connection to “The Sound of Music.”

In fact, it might be considered a forerunner to last night’s production—but without the nuns, the children, the alps, the singing, or the Nazis.

 Wikipedia explains:

On Golden Pond is a 2001 television adaptation of the play starring Julie Andrews andChristopher Plummer. The movie originally aired on April 29, 2001 and was promoted as a live television event. The movie was filmed on a sound stage in Los Angeles, CA.

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer had previously starred in the highly successful 1965 film, The Sound of Music, and their reuniting in this play was part of the promotion for the original broadcast of the film. The film is also notable because the author of the play, Ernest Thompson, directed this version and Craig Anderson, the producer/director of the original Off Broadway and Broadway productions of the play, was the executive producer.

Approximately 11,900,000 people watched the production when it was initially released. This was the lowest viewership for a program in its time slot.

I remember catching parts of it back then and being underwhelmed. It was hard to get past the sensation that you were watching Maria and Georg in old age.  Is this what they had come to?  Maria calling The Captain an “old poop”?

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, unfortunately, also labored under the shadows of Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda—much like last night’s cast had to satisfy the expectations of generations who had grown up with Andrews and Plummer as the definitive Maria and Georg.  The resulting “On Golden Pond” was less-than-golden.

Last night’s production fared better, but it was hit-and-miss for me. (Admittedly, I went into this cynically expecting to hate it. I didn’t. But I didn’t love it, either.) It was a valiant effort, though. Carrie Underwood sang well, but clearly doesn’t have the acting chops.  She didn’t make anyone forget Julie Andrews—still, and forever, the definitive singing nun.  The rest of the production was engaging enough, despite the frequent commercial breaks touting the show’s synergy with WalMart.  Standout performance: Audra McDonald, whose rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” instantly set the bar—and raised it to the stratosphere—for any one else even daring to attempt the song.

I noted to a friend on Twitter that I came away reminded what a good job the legendary Ernest Lehman had done adapting the stage script for the 1965 film. Last night, we saw the original stage version, which differs in some key ways from the film.  (Example: in the movie version, it’s the Baroness who tells Maria that the Captain is in love with her, as a convenient way to shock the young woman and send her on an emotional tailspin that drives her back to the convent. But in the original, as we saw last night, it’s one of the children who breaks the news, which is far more innocent and doesn’t pack the same punch.)

Then, of course, there’s this: when was the last time you saw so much Catholicism displayed so vividly and unapologetically on television?  (Papal funerals don’t count.) The habits, the Latin, the blessings, the nuns making the Sign of the Cross —bizarrely, it looked almost choreographed during Maria’s wedding march—it was all impressively and respectfully done.  (But what were two priests doing wearing white zucchettos during the wedding?)

If nothing else, for all its shortcomings, last night’s production harkened back to an age when television routinely produced live musicals like “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella.”  This “Sound of Music” showed the networks can still produce family-friendly programs like that, and give it the feeling of an “event.”

We’ll see if enough people watched to make it a recurring event—or if it will be another 12 years before someone decides to try it again.

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