Friday, December 6, 2013

Sound of Music LIVE! And the verdict is...

          For the The Sound of Music LIVE! performance last night, much like when I saw Les Miserables in the movie theater, I gave myself a pep talk about turning off my critical singer ears and tried to just go in with an attitude of enjoying it. I succeeded mostly! I thought the set was lovely, and the use of the cameras in what had to be an enormous soundstage was inventive and interesting. I felt uncomfortable when someone had a comic beat and there was no audience laughter, but that’s just a byproduct of this sort of mix of theater and television I suppose. What was more palpable was a sense that a lot of viewers were hoping everything would go smoothly, which is part of the fun of live television.

          First off, as I said in my first post on the subject, I am familiar with the stage version so I came to this with perhaps fewer expectations directing relating to the film than the general public might have. In the movie version, songs were omitted and added and rearranged so if you were hoping for a remake of the film, this was not that. I thought Carrie Underwood’s singing was good. Some of my more purist friends thought it was too belty, but it honestly didn't offend me. It was really her acting that was distracting. It fell flat and monotone and made me actually feel sorry and worried for her. That alone at least points to the fact that she seemed to be trying harder than say, Russell Crowe in Les Mis. One of her more solid moments—that reached anywhere near the emotional height the role of Maria demands— was her confrontation scene with Captain von Trapp, but even that toward the end began to come off as a list of lines about each child that she had to get through. The part that really irritated me was that their sexual tension and ultimate romance wasn’t earned and seemed too random. Even worse, her realization that the Captain returned her love later was totally without any readable signs of real surprise, relief, or joy.

          Underwood’s best scene may have been the emotion she showed when Audra McDonald was, of course, killing it in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. And who wouldn't tear up during that? Thank goodness they didn't write dialogue for Maria after that number. Let me tell you, Audra sang that shit, but she also had a very clear intention of making Maria understand what she had to do throughout that part of the scene. Without that, the second time through the song is just another verse. Making the words of these songs that we’ve all heard a hundred times fresh and spontaneous is what distinguished her and the other wonderful supporting actors in the cast. And take it from me, not every singer is a natural-born actor. I can tell you from experience just how many hours singers spend in a Conservatory setting working on conveying clear intentions from the beginning to the end of the song or aria. And Audra articulated as much in an interview beforehand:
          "Just focus on what Mother Abbess is really trying to do. And what she's trying to do is give Maria some serious tough love and kicking her out. She's saying no, you can't run from your problems. This is opportunity in your life knocking on the door saying here we are. Here is your life. This is your destiny. And I'm not going to let you run away from it because it seems scary. So if I focus on that I will be okay. If I focus on; 'oh this is a hard song, I hope I don't screw it up,' then I'll screw up."

          This kind of dramatic commitment is not spontaneously manufactured. Just as Audra says, it takes thought and work in advance to make it seem spontaneous.

          Laura Benanti and Christian Borle were both great as Elsa and Uncle Max respectively. I've always found the stage version to be more foreboding in its political implications than the movie, and they both contributed well to this sensibility. Bernanti, (surprise, surprise!) has actually played Maria in a Broadway revival and really outshone the leads vocally and dramatically. Lisel and Rolf proved to be good triple threats, negotiating well through the acting, singing, and dancing. As with any good production of this show, the kids were cute but I didn't get the sense that it was all about them either, which I prefer. Stephen Moyer was a decent Captain. I’m not familiar with his character on True Blood, but I thought his singing was good enough and he at least brought a decent amount of conviction to the character. Even if he wasn’t the most dashing man in the role, he was still acting circles around his romantic counterpart. It seems unfair to compare to Christopher Plummer but maybe if we could sense that Moyer secretly hated the family fun of it all too, earning his love would have seemed more worthwhile somehow.

          Overall, would I have cast someone else as Maria? Sure. But then, this particular production was viewed by millions of Americans last night. You can’t say the same for other modern adaptations of musical theater pieces. Lincoln Center’s performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel aired on PBS fairly recently and starred amazing singing actors Kelli O’Hara, Nathan Gunn, Stephanie Blythe and others. And I seem to be the only person I know who watched it— and loved it! Seriously, there isn’t too much footage of it online, but if you order the whole show, I will guarantee a more satisfying experience than last night’s muddled one, (Carousel's confusing anti-hero Billy Bigelow aside). Still, it’s no mistake that the network chose a Carrie Underwood and combined it with this ever-popular, multi-generational piece*. Last evening's performance ran on anticipation and controversy as much as it did on the multi-million dollar budget and I for one, have enjoyed the public discussion of the arts it brought about thoroughly. Hopefully, the hype it received can pave the way for more exciting projects like it. The public is abuzz and the networks should take advantage.

* We all know just how popular The Sound of Music is, but to me personally, nothing emphasizes this more than family reaction when I played Maria in a musical review. My grandmother kept the tape of the performance perpetually in her VCR so she could regale visitors with it. Did she ever show them my graduate recital? My performances in La boheme? Nope. Friends and acquaintances were always forced to watch me prancing around in a dirndl with a gaggle of kids singing "Do-Re-Mi".

Thursday, December 5, 2013

We, the people of the theatre, call it "The Sound of Mucus"

          When you have an expertise in singing, you find that on days like today, when a remake of the stage version of The Sound of Music goes live for one night on television, people assume you are excited for it. I will not lie. I am excited for it, but maybe not for the reasons that people would think. The fact that the country is anxiously awaiting a musical theater piece, despite its age, is no small thing. Many are even DVR-ing it and having Sound of Music parties, as though it were a suspenseful sporting event. (No you say? Just my friends?) The piece after all is an American classic. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote songs that were so iconic, that Austrians came up to them telling them that they had sung “Edelweiss” as children, 'but in the original German of course'. It's amazing to see people so enthusiastically embrace a live performance of the stage version. What I am less excited about for tonight is the choice of casting.

          I, like many opera singers who started out as musical theater nerds, have a long-held love for The Sound of Music. I am lucky enough to have had a mother who exposed me to many classic American musicals so it was a distinct obsession at an earlier age as well. I can sing every line of course. I still remember being at the Cape with singer friends when we stumbled upon it on cable and stayed up until 2am watching it. And despite the fact that he hated the film, I still have a penchant for men dressed in Austrian garb because of Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp. I was in the The Sound of Music in high school as Sister Margaretta and I still think the opening strains of the abbey music to be some of the most beautiful in all of musical theater. I know that just because I became a singer, I was not the only girl in America who dreamed of singing at the top of her lungs in the Alps someday.

          There are many things I have learned in my years pursuing a stage career though, (not the least of which is that dancing nuns are always hilarious). But one of these granules of knowledge is that it’s usually a mistake to cast a celebrity over an experienced professional in the field. I am not trying to knock Carrie Underwood, of American Idol fame for what she is. She can sing, but she is far from an experienced theatre professional. She is a country singer. She has established herself as a great country singer even, but in my mind, that qualifies her to maybe play Nellie Forbush in South Pacific or someone in Oklahoma. As the classic Austrian character of Maria, full of spunk and insight into the hearts of a struggling family? I’m not buying it… yet. So that decision alone just points to strange casting. Lately I’ve heard people say in her defense that she used to sing musical theatre. So did I, but I certainly would not be comfortable doing a live broadcast of the lead in a three hour musical! The only evidence I can find of her having done live theatre is the "Northeastern State University's Downtown Country show in Tahlequah". Again, not sold that she will live up to her predecessors Mary Martin and Julie Andrews vocally or stylistically, but maybe she will surprise me.

          Unfortunately, Hollywood and other like-minded producers would rather throw in a big name than find someone who actually does live theater for a living, and I think the public is poorer for it. Let’s take the example of my in-laws’ trip to New York a few years ago. They tried to get rush tickets to see A Little Night Music starring Catherine Zeta-Jones on Broadway and were at first disappointed that her understudy was performing instead that night. The box office worker told them; “That’s really for the best. Her understudy is much better.” Catherine Zeta-Jones is a beautiful movie star and all, and she did a bang-up job in the movie Chicago, but the NYTimes ripped her performance of Desiree in A Little Night Music to shreds because she was essentially playing her as Velma in Chicago. She lacked the heart that Desiree should have and her vocal stamina did not impress either.

          We have this American obsession with not only Hollywood celebrities, but also quick rises to fame. There’s no wonder a host of people through the years have asked me if I will ever audition for American Idol or The Voice. There are just so many ways to answer these questions. For one thing, that’s not the kind of singing I’m focused on. I didn’t attend New England Conservatory to sing pop music with a microphone. If I had wanted that, I would have gone to Berklee, which most people assume I went to anyway when they hear I studied music in Boston. (Newsflash: Berklee is a great school for pop and jazz, but not classical music. Newsflash: I sing classical music.) I sing recitals and opera, meaning a specific type of training that does not use a microphone, and therefore takes years of vocal and language study. If the cable networks created a reality show where at the end of a competition, a talented, studied, classical singer had an opportunity to sing in one of the best opera houses in America, then we could talk. In the meantime, the Metropolitan Opera Guild has been holding regional auditions for their annual competition for decades to the same purpose, just without the same size national audience. There certainly is no dearth of talented and dedicated classical singers struggling to make it in the professional world in this economy though, so any networks reading: feel free to create a reality series on the subject.

          But there are also inherent problems with this model of competition, particularly when the judges' panel is often made up of producers or one-hit wonders. Do I enjoy watching American Idol or The Voice on occasion? Sure. But for further discussion on how these shows are contributing to the idea that talent simply springs forth to impress us and doesn’t need work or even basic knowledge of the song lyrics or composer, see what Harry Connick Jr. had to say about the singers when he was on the show:

          I have always loved Harry Connick Jr. but now I love him even more for challenging these singers to be artists creating an emotional experience instead of just vocal fireworks. There’s a reason there was talk shortly thereafter about the network hiring him as a judge for the show. We have this knee jerk reaction to elitism these days, but a connection to text and working knowledge of their genre are what earn Connick and artists with decades-long careers when others are just a flash in the pan. A musicology teacher of mine said that she met Bruce Springsteen and he had a jaw-dropping music library as well as a staggering working knowledge of American folk, bluegrass, and rock traditions. There’s a reason they call him the Boss…

          The show tonight will have some saving graces— the fabulously talented, Juilliard trained, and stage-experienced Audra MacDonald will be playing the role of the Mother Abbess, even if she is arguably a bit young for it. I saw her live in Porgy and Bess in Cambridge before it went to Broadway and it was honestly one of the greatest performances I have seen in the last few years.

          Now all this being said, as my one friend points out, at least Carrie Underwood will be doing all of her own singing, unlike the old Hollywood model. So again, I will give her a fair shot. When I was young, I discovered that Marni Nixon did all the singing voices for movie versions of The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and An Affair to Remember. And she imitated each actress’s speaking habits surprisingly well. She must have been some sort of troll to not have been put on the silver screen right? Not so. She also played one of the featured nuns in the movie version of, you guessed it, The Sound of Music. Dubbing her angelic voice for musicals was simply something Nixon did, with no credit at the time, while she pursued her opera and concert career, (a fairly successful one I might add). So maybe she lacked “star quality” or a name, but she sure had the know-how. But then, sometimes the only thing separating an experienced, well-versed, non-celebrity from a star is a spotlight. Now that’s the kind of quick rise to fame I could get behind.