I'm not quite sure what to make of NBC's Big Holiday Special, the live version of The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood.
For starters though, as one might suspect from reading these pages, I love that they're doing it. Doing musicals on TV is high on my list of...well, My Favorite Things. And as a lover of live television, I think this is a great thing, as well.
And boy howdy, do I ever admire Carrie Underwood for taking this on. For any performer to do a live show on national television, that is a brave thing. But for something as intricate as a stage musical, that's all the more impressive. And for someone who isn't a trained actress, that's just stunning in the admiration department.
But then...well, let's back up a second. You know, to that whole "for someone who isn't a trained actress" part.
I don't have a clue why NBC chose Carrie Underwood to do this, nor do I know why she accepted -- unless it's that she absolutely adores a challenge and just loves pushing herself. There are many admirable stars like that. Yes, I know that she's very popular and sings the Monday Night Football song. But there are other, more popular singers out there, both country and not country. Particularly "not country." (Though maybe they all said, "Oh, God, no way!!")
And while I think she's a very good singer, I don't think she's a great singer. Nuance is not one of her strong points. A strong voice is one of her strong points.
But mainly...well, we have to keep coming back to that "for someone who isn't a trained actress" thing. All the more so because one of the co-stars in this production she'll be acting opposite is Audra McDonald -- who's won five Tony Awards for stage musicals. She'll not just be going up against the memory of both Julie Andrews and Mary Martin -- she'll be there on camera next to Audra McDonald.
I saw a TV special Carrie Underwood did a couple years ago, or at least part of it. She handled the written material fine and professionally -- but not a whole lot more than that. And it wasn't remotely as demanding as acting in a play. It was chitter-chat bantering with her guest star and with her mom. And taped, allowing them to do re-takes.
I'm guessing she's had acting lessons since then -- though that's just a guess. And it's also a guess that they are rehearsing up the wazoo. And I hope she's improved. Because that earlier TV special got somewhat cloying after a while, and I turned off.
One thing I'm sure of -- there is an abundance of trained musical comedy actresses out there in the Great White Way of Life who are right now calling their agents and friends and strangers on the street saying, "Carrie Underwood??? Why in the world didn't call me??!!!"
And to be clear, I'm not talking about unknowns, or even big Broadway stars who the general public doesn't particularly know, who'd likely be brilliant. I'm talking about people like Amy Adams or Kristen Chenoweth or Anne Hathaway or Anna Kendrick (she has a Tony nomination, by the way), or Gyneth Paltrow, or Jessica Biel (yes, Jessica Biel -- she did Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago), or Zooey Deschanel, or Scarlett Johansson, or Renee Zellweger, or Kristen Bell (I saw her in Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Los Angeles Opera's production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), or Amanda Seyfried . People like that.
How many of those actual, trained actresses who can, in fact, sing and are stars (and some, huge stars, and quite of a few trained in musical comedy) would you like to see starring in a live TV production of The Sound of Music FAR before Carrie Underwood? And that's just for starters, without doing research.
(By the way, Jennifer Aniston can sing. Do you think a live TV production of The Sound of Music starring Jennifer Aniston returning to her old NBC network would attract an audience..?)
To be fair, maybe all of them were asked. And they all said, "Oh, dear God, no way!" For all I know, they went way down the list and got to Carrie Underwood. But if you were head of programming at NBC and were planning to do a live TV musical...would you want to go ahead if you had to go way down the list?? For anybody?
But then, maybe Carrie Underwood was their first choice, or near the top. Stranger things have happened. Not a lot stranger, but they have.
And all I can't think about when I see the ads is the movie, Scrooged, where Bill Murray's network devotes the whole evening to a live production broadcast from around the globe of A Christmas Carol starring Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge. The difference is that, big a joke as that is in the movie, Buddy Hackett had actually starred on Broadway in the musical, I Had a Ball.
To be clear, I don't think Carrie Underwood will be a disaster. I think she's a solid singer with a pleasant personality who can deliver lines professionally, and I'm sure that company is rehearsing more than thought humanly possible. If I had to bet, it would be that she's just okay -- but she could be surprising and do a charming job.
But even if so, what this is all about is that I still don't understand choosing to do a live TV production of The Sound of Music that stars Carrie Underwood. When there are SO many other people who, if available, would seem to be worlds, universes better, even more popular and far more intriguing. Even if she does a solid job. Even if she's great. What I don't understand is the decision because it's such a massive risk. And TV is perhaps more averse to taking risks than any venue in the entertainment world.. Even more than feature films, because TV has that tick-tick-ticking clock always relentlessly pounding away, and a voracious schedule that must be fed every second of every day. And a live -- live!! -- intricate, TV production of a musical is about as risky as it gets. That's tightrope-walking across the Grand Canyon without a net, during a hurricane.
What I don't understand is how that decision came to be. However she turns out to be. It can't be because of her experience as an actress. It's not because she's such a better singer than anyone. It would seem to be because executives at NBC think she's SO popular that she'll draw a massive audience. Except...not only do I not think she's that "must-see" popular, more to the point is that -- even if she is, that's not what will draw an audience for this. I mean, honestly, if you can't draw a huge audience to a live (live!!!) TV production of The Sound of Music before Christmas with whoever you cast as Maria, you are doing some seriously bad promotion. I understand wanting to get a Big Star. But a live TV production of The Sound of Music -- which is the reason to watch -- needs 100%-certain "great" much more than Big Star. Especially if you want to GUARANTEE people sticking around for the full three hours.
That's why I don't get the decision. However Carrie Underwood does.
And I hope she does wonderfully. I wish her well. (I mean it. I love musicals. I want to watch this for all three hours. Not turn off after 45 minutes.) And I admire the bejeepers out of her for tackling this. The hills will certainly be alive...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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