It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.
Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.
The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.
Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)
Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new – ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.
I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.
Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.
And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.
What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!
How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)
Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriage. I do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)
The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.
The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.
My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!
Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.
Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.
mercy, this is amazing…and I figured the theater crowd/liberals who put this romp together was/were also winking at us all through their performances which gave their sponsor wally-mart the finger in live time…as in YOU AIN’T THE BOSS OF US WHILE THE CAMERAS ARE ROLLING and we are emoting in real time…and also when engaged in FAREWELL, SO LONG, AUFWEIDERSEHN GOOD BYE-EE UP YOURS as they approached the finale with the Nazis in hot pursuit at the nunnery. thanks for the sponsorship, sucker! yep, that might have been their message! hoo-rah for freedom of thought after all. great review of the show, of live broadcasting of something of higher quality than dance-a-thons and singing to simon whatever his name is and reality crap shows. the return to YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS VARIETY FARE AND PLAYHOUSE THREE HOURS is very welcome…an attempt at culture in a zombie world. BRAVO, ROY!
oh, I bet you’re right – and I certainly hope that’s true! that would make me very happy! it did seem like quite an impish cast – yes, that’s what I’m going to believe! so long, zombies! woot! woot!
i didn’t see it, but too bad people could not just take it for what i imagined it was meant to be, a family friendly piece of happy songs and sweetness and fluffiness. we all need a touch of fluffiness once in a while. helps take the hard edge off of things. ) i like it when you are opinionated roy, please never stop.
Thank you, dear Beth! I definitely have my moments!
BETH, I LOVE THE “FLUFFINESS” ANALOGY! THAT IT WAS! HOW IN THE HELL THE COUNTRY HAS BECOME DIVIDED OVER A WAL-MART HALL OF FAME X-MAS BON-BON IS BEYOND ME! 😉
right on, Susie – right on!
i agree, susie and roy. how can you get upset about a sweet cloud of cotton candy, after all?
as a nation, we seem to have perfected the rare art of overthinking, overreacting, and overcriticizing in regard to everything creative and artistic anybody does. it has gotten totally exhausting. I’d blame social media, but I think that social media has just provided an overly convenient channel for Americans to vomit their bile, anxieties, and neuroses all over each other – when they aren’t trying to make each other jealous or insecure.
Bullseye. A truly thoughtful and informed take. I learned a lot from reading it, and I totally agree.
Thank you, friend!! Appreciate that!
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