The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Heckling

Review of NBC’s The Sound of Music Live, Directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller

Last Thursday night, millions of Americans tuned their TV sets to NBC to witness a classical Broadway musical being broadcast live for the first time in almost half a century. The Sound of Music Live netted monster ratings—the best NBC has had in years. Twitter exploded. Pretty much every news and entertainment site has weighed in on the merits (and demerits) of the production. It was nothing short of a pop culture phenomenon.

For those who missed the show (or who have somehow avoided all the media buzz in the days since then), here’s the general scoop: Carrie Underwood, the innocent country girl who stole the nation’s heart (and votes) on American Idol back in 2005—and who has since garnered no small amount of praise and a significant number of accolades for her musical prowess since then—took on the role of the beloved Maria. The stern-but-sexy Captain Von Trapp was played by True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer  This was a production of the original stage musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, so for those familiar only with the film version some of the songs are out of order (or cut completely) and several iconic scenes were missing altogether (Rolf and Liesl’s gazebo dance, the Lonely Goatherd puppet show, etc.). There are even a few numbers that were new to me and many other viewers. The whole thing was performed live, but not in front of a studio audience (a big difference for stage actors—or country music stars—used to feeding of an audience’s energy during a show).

The reviews have been, by and large, unanimous. NBC and Underwood are applauded for trying something new and different, for daring to take on such an iconic musical. Audra McDonald is being universally praised for her stirring performance as the Mother Abbess—she is the clear winner of the night, and no wonder, as she’s earned a record 5 Tony Awards in her career. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Mother Abbess’s scenes in the movie version are, well, rather dull. Many a movie-watcher has used ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ as an opportunity for a snack break or a quick trip to the loo. But no more: McDonald invested her scenes with more emotion than, well, pretty much all the other actors in all the other scenes combined. Tony Award winners Laura Benanti (the Baroness) and Christian Borle (Max Detwiler) did fine work, even if Borle’s Max did bear a marked—and rather distracting—resemblance to Tim Curry’s memorable turn as Rooster in Annie (1982). Several of the children—most notably Kurt (Joe West) and Liesl (Ariane Rinehart)—displayed remarkable charm. I was not enamored of the shorts-wearing future Nazi Rolf (Michael Campayno), mostly because he looked significantly older than his alleged ’17 going on 18‘ years and was kind of creepy, but others disagree, and I think reasonable minds can differ.

The big issue has been the choice of Carrie Underwood as Maria. No one doubts that Ms. Underwood can sing. She has certainly earned her many awards. And on Thursday night, she sang for three hours on live television, rarely hitting a sour note. And boy did she sing. Loud. All the time. (This was one of my nitpicks—not every moment of every song needs to be belted at full volume. There is a place for dynamics.)

Clearly, Underwood has musical chops. What she cannot do—or at least did not do on Thursday—is act. She was chirpy and cheery and pleasant (as those who saw her on American Idol will well remember), but her performance had all the depth and nuance of a Kleenex.

To be fair, it’s a big role, and she had big shoes to fill. Despite the studio’s insistence that they were re-making the musical, not the movie, comparisons to the inimitable Julie Andrews were inevitable. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Thursday’s spectacle, it’s that Julie Andrews earned her Oscar nomination for The Sound of Music. Like all uniquely talented people, she makes it look easy. But watching Carrie Underwood struggle to find the balance between pleasant and childlike and spunky and cheerful and plucky and womanly and passionate … well, it certainly made me appreciate the skill it took for Julie Andrews to embody this awkward, lovable role with such apparent ease.

Andrews also had the advantage of playing off of the deliciously charming Christopher Plummer, and the two had remarkable chemistry. I don’t know much about Stephen Moyer or his work on True Blood, but his Captain Von Trapp had all the sizzle and passion of a dead fish, and he and Underwood had no chemistry to speak of. As a result, their alleged ‘romance’ felt rushed, false, and completely inauthentic.

When Underwood was acting opposite Audra McDonald, she caught some of her co-star’s passion and reflected it back in her performance. During ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, I swear Underwood had real tears in her eyes. Audra McDonald’s performance moved her, and her own acting was elevated by the stellar performance of her scene partner. Unfortunately, such pairings were rare, and Underwood was frequently left to carry scenes by herself—or with the stiff and forbidding Captain.

But enough about the performance itself. What has fascinated me almost more than the musical has been the response it has generated. The responses—from reviewers and in the Twitterverse—seem to fall into one of four categories:

  • Response Number One: This is terrible and I will eviscerate it with glee, condemning everyone involved in the most vitriolic terms possible. (See generally, Twitter.)
  • Response Number Two: This is the best thing that’s happened in the history of ever, and those involved with this show can do no wrong. (See generally, Twitter.)
  • Response Number Three: They tried hard and took a risk and thus must not be criticized. (Here’s an example.)
  • Response Number Four: A lot of time and effort went into this, and I applaud the work and the risks taken, but will still offer my critique of the result. (Here’s a great example.)

Obviously, as Christians, we should have nothing to do with Response Number One. To be sure, vicious reviews can make for a curiously enjoyable read—and certainly generate more internet traffic. And we are of course free to critique a performance or production. But verbally assaulting the individuals involved is not a very Christlike response. Actors—and directors, and writers—are still people, made in the image of God and imbued with the dignity that comes from being ‘a little lower than the heavenly beings.’ The Bible does not speak highly of mocking, scoffing, or being contemptuous of our neighbors (even our neighbors in Hollywood). As Underwood herself observed on Twitter, ‘Mean people need Jesus.’ We should not be mean (though, as discussed below, that does not eliminate criticism).

Response Number Two raises similar problems. We are blessed with minds capable of discerning truth from error. We are not to shut our minds off and tuck them away while we blindly worship our idols, oblivious—or willfully blind—to their faults. We can admire someone without investing them with god-like status. No one is above reproach, and we are free to make intelligent judgments about the merits of someone’s actions. We can be respectfully critical without being mean. Determining that a book wasn’t all that great doesn’t mean we don’t respect the author or love his other works. I freely confess that I could not force my way through the last entry in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra Series—yet I deeply admire and enjoy almost everything else of his I’ve read, and I steadfastly maintain that he’s one of history’s great writers. I don’t have to defender his every thought or action from critics; he was human, and fallen, and I don’t need him to be anything else. Only God is perfect. Everyone else makes mistakes. It’s ok to not be the best at everything all the time. It doesn’t mean you lack value. It just means you’re human.

Response Number Three is an increasingly common response, particularly in America, where we can sometimes fall prey to the idea that effort is all that matters. Effort and passion. Rudy worked hard, so he should get to play. We want to reward hard work; we want people to take risks—and that’s fine. But applauding hard work and courage does not mean lying about the result. That way is littered with deluded American Idol contestants—those whose friends and family were so set on encouraging the work and the dream that they never addressed objective reality. Because at the end of the day, if you’re tone deaf, it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you want to be a pop star.

As Christians, we have an obligation to speak truth. Not harshly, mind you, but in love. And not even all the truth all the time—I don’t need to walk down the street proclaiming the wisdom or unwisdom of their fashion choices to every stranger I meet. There is most assuredly a time to be silent. But applauding someone’s intentions, efforts, or character does not require endorsing the outcome of those intentions. The Bible and history are full of people who tried really, really hard to do good things. But if (and when) they failed, when they fell short, when they sinned, the appropriate response is to call sin ‘sin.’ Paul was full of zeal for God when he persecuted the early church. But he was wrong, and he was sinning. And unless and until he acknowledged that sin as sin, he could neither seek nor obtain forgiveness and the perfect righteousness that can only be found in Christ. Sincerity is not the ultimate defense. Neither is effort. Nor courage.

Similarly, a writer may pour his heart and soul into a book, and we are right to praise his diligence and hard work. But that book may still stink. Our admiration for gumption need not blind us to the quality (high or low) in the result. And we certainly need not withhold judgment until we ourselves have trod in the footsteps of others. Again: we are not to condemn the individual. However, we are free to form an opinion about the product they’ve created. The mere fact of not having tried a thing myself does not prevent me from weighing in on the merits of said thing, as some have suggested. I don’t have to withhold my critique until I’ve written a book myself, or produced a movie, or delivered a sermon (though it’s certainly true that if and when I do attempt those things, it may color my future critiques and lend an empathy and nuance to them).

So as you ‘watch books’ and ‘read movies’ (see our blog subtitle above), keep Response Number Four in mind. It is the best and most biblical way to interact with the creativity of others, treating the individual with dignity and respect while still holding up the finished product to true, objective standards.

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Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.


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