When NBC announced plans several months ago to present a new holiday version of The Sound of Music starring Carrie Underwood as Maria, many Julie Andrews fans reacted with the same apoplexy that greeted the news that Ben Affleck would be the next Batman. To put it mildly, they had a problem with this Maria, and poor Underwood soon was getting hate tweets on her Twitter account.
That initial hysteria seems to have died down, for the most part, but as The Sound of Music Live! premieres tonight as a three-hour special on NBC, many viewers tuning in will be doing so to see whether Underwood – a former American Idol winner and country music superstar but an untested actress – can pull off this iconic character that brought Andrews her second Academy Award nomination as best actress.
If comparisons to the much-beloved Andrews are inevitable, to some extent they’re also irrelevant, though. While Underwood is playing the same character that Andrews portrayed in the 1965 Oscar-winning movie blockbuster, this new NBC production actually is (for the most part) a reimagining of the 1959 Broadway version of this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, which earned a Tony Award for Mary Martin. In recent days and weeks, anyone close to The Sound of Music Live! has been taking pains to draw that distinction, and fans of the 1965 film are sure to notice some striking differences, particularly in the order and context of the songs. Whether they find those differences interesting or irritating remains to be seen.
“My Favorite Things,” sung by Maria in the film to calm the Von Trapp children during a thunderstorm, here is a duet for Maria and the Mother Abbess (Audra McDonald) early in the show, before Maria leaves the abbey. “I Have Confidence,” which Rodgers wrote expressly as a transition song for the film to follow Maria from the abbey to the Von Trapp estate, isn’t to be found in The Sound of Music Live!, although – try to stay with me, now – “Something Good,” a love song for Maria and the Captain (Stephen Moyer) that was written for the movie, has now replaced a similar song from the original Broadway production called “An Ordinary Couple.”
Baroness Elsa Shrader (Laura Benanti, Go On) and Max Detweiler (Christian Borle, Smash) are singing characters in this production, which means we get the happy restoration of two more songs from the original Broadway score, “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It.” Both numbers reflect the wordly, cynical attitude of Elsa and Max, which helps cut the sugar a bit.
Earlier this week, Sony released a studio recording of this cast performing the songs they’ll be singing live in tonight’s telecast. After hearing Borle and Benanti tear through their two numbers, I can’t ait to see these two Tony winners recreate them in live performance. I’m also looking forward to McDonald’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which raises goosebumps on the CD
But back to Underwood. Obviously, I have no idea how well she’ll pull off the acting part of her role, although come on, she’s playing Maria, not Medea. Based on the CD, however, I can report that vocally, she sounds sunny and self-assured. If you’re tuning in expecting her to face-plant in her songs, you’re probably going to be disappointed. She makes an especially lovely thing out of “Something Good,” which she sings simply and without affect (Moyer’s very good in this duet, too, and in his other songs).
I’ve got my fingers crossed that NBC’s team is able to pull off this technically daunting production. Certainly, it was smart casting to hire seasoned theater pros like McDonald (who has five Tony wins to her credit), Borle and Benanti to lend Broadway credibility to a project whose leading lady is green in terms of stage experience. Yet while it admittedly takes awhile to get used to hearing these familiar tunes sung in anything other than Andrews’ crystalline, British-inflected soprano, once you get past that hurdle, Underwood’s singing is very persuasive. To paraphrase a lyric from the movie, I have to agree, she has confidence in herself.