Sunday, December 8, 2013

Broadway ... on Television

There was a time - within my lifetime - that LIVE was synonymous with TELEVISION. Names such as Playhouse 90, Studio OneOmnibus, and others bring back images of live drama in the early days of television. Soap operas, the staple of daytime TV, were performed live well after all the others went to film or tape.

Actors found ways to adapt and although you might have found chaos on the set, what came through the tv was some of the finest material ever presented on TV. It didn't have the polish or production quality that today's shows have, but the content was remarkable. This was the incubator for some of the finest playwrights of the day ... including Rod Serling who gained fame for his Requiem for a Heavyweight, and went on to create The Twilight Zone.

Among the source material for these shows, was often dramas which had been successful on Broadway. However, the Broadway musical was a challenge that was very rarely attempted, and when it was, it needed to be a big network special.

When I was growing up, there were two musicals that everyone waited anxiously for their yearly broadcast. The first was the now classic MGM musical, The Wizard of Oz. The other was taken from the Broadway stage and featured Mary Martin as Peter Pan.

The first few years it was broadcast, it was done so live, with Mary Martin reprising the role she created on Broadway. In its later years, the show was committed to video tape, but for us watching it, that made no difference at all. The once a year NBC special broadcast was an event. I know I looked forward to it with just as much excitement and anticipation as I did for the Thanksgiving night broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. However, while the Wizard of Oz was a huge Hollywood spectacular, Peter Pan had the intimacy of the Broadway stage.

In 1960 it had been taped in a longer TV version from the earlier live ones - at the Brooklyn studio that was just around the corner from where I lived. Mary Martin, once again playing the boy who wouldn't grow up, was now appearing on Broadway, as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Then it was gone. The Wizard of Oz continued but Peter Pan disappeared from our small screen It made its final TV appearance in 1999, but that was the first time it had been on TV since 1973! (The show was revived twice on Broadway - once with Sandy Duncan and once with Cathy Rigby whom I saw in it in 1990.)

Saturday Night Live - which also broadcast a few episodes in 1976 from the Brooklyn studio (and if you buy the DVD set of the second season, you can see my wife and myself in the audience) - became the only live show on TV.

Broadway musicals performed live on tv became just a memory ... until a few nights ago. NBC once again attempted to present a musical performed live. Ironically the choice of musical was The Sound of Music! However, rather than casting someone who had played the part on Broadway, for the leads, the producers went with names from the current celebrity pool and surrounded them with a few Broadway veterans, such as Audra McDonald whose Broadway prowess is legendary.

For the role of Maria - they cast Carrie Underwood, a country singer who gained recognition as a winner on American Idol. She had no background in acting and her style of singing was not what was needed for this show.

Carrie Underwood's acting was very poor - I won't say amateurish as I have seen some wonderful amateur actors in the more than 40 years I have worked with community theater - and there were some technical flaws with the broadcast. I would have expected better from a national network broadcast special.

However ... having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed the show ... and have now watched it twice. 

Rather than bash Carrie Underwood - as so many did, both on social media as well as traditional reviews, I give her full credit for attempting something so far out of her comfort zone. She needed to not only act, but change her style of singing drastically. I think she accomplished the singing part very successfully. (I was not a Carrie Underwood fan going in - but I respect her now, at least for the courage she showed and the work she put in!) In fact, I would say that her best acting was done while she was singing. Perhaps if she were given more time and extensive coaching in her acting, I believe she could have pulled it off much better. I hope she gets the opportunity again after some work in that area. Bottom line for me was that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

Yes, I could pick it apart with the best of them, but isn't it all about enjoying a performance? Well, I did. I hope this is the first in a long line of Broadway musicals brought to TV. There is still a lot they need to learn, but I hope they learn from their problems and continue to present live musical theater to the TV viewing public.

Update: Since writing this, a lot of people have complained about the broadcast - mostly comparing it to the movie rather than the Broadway show, which came first, starring Mary Martin as mentioned above. (The show opened in 1959 - the movie premiered in 1965! The movie would never have been made if the show had not been a huge hit.) Many complained how musical numbers were not in the "proper" order. They seem unaware - or have forgotten - that this is the Broadway book and it was the movie which switched the musical numbers. I have heard more than one person say that no one could step in to the shoes of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I agree, but those weren't the shoes they were trying to step in to. If anybody's shoes were being stepped in to it was those of Maria and Georg Von Trapp!

1 comment:

  1. I think she is a very talented singer but this role just wasnt for her. I think he woman who played Mother Abbess was awesome.