Sunday, December 08, 2013

TV: The Sound of Failure

We like Julie Andrews.  We really do.  We like her in The Tooth Fairy, The Princess Diaries, Victor/Victoria, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary Poppins, S.O.B. and even Torn Curtain.  But The Sound of Music?  When it comes to nuns, we prefer our nuns flying, not singing.


Give us an episode of Sally Field -- any episode of The Flying Nun -- over Julie playing Maria or Debbie Reynolds starring in The Singing Nun.  So we weren't expecting much from NBC's big live event last week, Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music.

Over 18 million tuned in for the live event and Tivo and streaming will probably put that number closer to 22 million.  The broadcast was a ratings hit

It wasn't as warmly received by critics.

For some reason, Carrie Underwood's been savaged.

For some reason?

Because she's a woman and The Water Cooler Set hates women.

Carrie was fine.

But the special was awful.

And it was awful from the start.  For example, the nuns should have been magical.  Don't make us name the criminals playing the mother superior and three nuns.  Let's let them be as forgettable as their performances were.

These minor roles need to be played chipper and their lines need to be read quickly and without meaningful pauses.  The mother superior, in fact, created Estelle Parsons-like starts and stops that surely gave her more time onscreen but weren't about the role, the genre or the entertainment factor for the audiences.

But if you were thinking about entertainment, would you have cast these bit parts with actresses whose voices curdled when singing and were even worse when they weren't singing.  Does no one grasp ensemble acting?

NBC certainly didn't grasp what they were doing when they okayed Rob Ashford as 'theatrical director' or whatever nonsense credit they gave him.  Ashford's a choreographer.  He's not Bob Fosse.  Yes, he's directed some musicals -- directed them poorly which is why there are no real hits there.

He does retreads -- revivals.  And does them poorly as a director.  They accomplish nothing and his directing career is an embarrassment.

Hire him as a choreographer if you must -- his work there is pedestrian but not awful -- but don't pretend he's also going to provide performances.

They teamed him up with Beth McCarthy-Miller and, maybe on her own, it could have worked?

The director spent years directing Saturday Night Live and went on to direct 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and more.

Maybe on her own, she could have emphasized the comedy?

Someone needed to but no one ever did.  Instead, we were at the manor of Captain Georg von Trapp where Stephen Moyer was flanked by three servants who should have been a whirl of activity but instead lumbered around slowly and spoke even slower as if the play's topic was venereal disease and the playwright were Henrik Ibsen.

Strangely, in their initial appearance they drew every line and movement out as slowly as possible, even while the Captain was whistling for them, yet after Maria arrives, the Captain suddenly only has to whistle once for two of the servants to immediately show up.

Moyer and Underwood had a nice tension in their performance and chemistry and Moyer did a good job making the natural progression of the Captain believable.

The broadcast wasn't awful but it had serious problems.

Carrie Underwood was not the problem.

Let's pretend for a second that Carrie Underwood was awful.

She was the star of a 3 hour NBC broadcast.  If she's off, you damn well make double sure the supporting characters anchor their own performances.

Instead, the nuns -- including mother superior -- were the most erratic actresses we've ever seen.  A real director would have yelled, "Speed your dialogue the f**k up!  You're a bit player, not a star and you're pauses and slow line readings are f**king up this scene!"

Supporting characters in musical comedies exist to advance the plot.  In a pinch they can provide some menace or some giggles, but that's it.

They're certainly not supposed to try to turn musical comedy into an Edward Albee play.

Scenes that should have been crisp and moved quickly were instead lethargic and plodding.

And if a line is needed, it's needed to be said so people can hear it.  Elsa (Laura Benanti) announces she feels like a brisk walk and  Max (Christian Borle) agrees it's a good idea while then adding, "Is anyone using the car?"  Or adding it for those who strain to hear.  Borle is a stage actor of note, did he really think that a half-heard line was one worth uttering?

And did he really think the staging for "No Way To Stop It" worked?  That's a three person number so you really don't have an excuse for losing one of the singers on the stage but Borle is repeatedly positioned wrongly.  That's a choreography issue but Borle's theater experience should have meant he argued loudly against the mounting of that number.

The camera work was as bad as the staging.  In "Climb Every Mountain," the song seemed to exist to demonstrate just how awful this broadcast could be.  A tacky set that looked a lot like SNL's old Church Lady set was the background for the mother superior to stomp around the stage -- with her back to the camera -- while she sang as if she were appearing in an operetta and used notes that do not impress on the airwaves -- these notes would be thrilling live but in a broadcast, they're just hideous, they broadcast hideous and they hit the ear harshly.

By contrast, special praise goes to Michael Campayno for his performance as Rolf.  He overcomes poor staging, non-direction and an awful costume to deliver a winning performance.

Awful costume?  Campayno's meaty and firm ass is on full display in the shorts (it's a nice ass, clearly others thought so too considering the close ups of it)  -- much more so than we would have expected in a family event -- but the front of the same costume makes him look fat.  Not stocky, fat.  He's not fat.  It's the way the shirt and shorts hang as though they're part of a kangaroo pouch.

This is musical comedy.

Does the Nazi backdrop confuse everyone that this was a period piece or docudrama?

Gail A. Fitzgibbons costumes were wretched throughout.  She clearly had no concept of what a musical was or that clothes in a musical need to flow and move.

The lavender number she dressed Laura Benanti in may be the worst outfit on TV this year.  Were those droopy things hanging a few inches above her wrists supposed to have covered Elsa's elbows?  If they were supposed to be bell sleeves, you either have tight cuffs or you have bell sleeves.  Trying to have both is not just fussy and overdone, it's ugly.   The pleats were hideous and kept collapsing around Benanti's neck.  This hideous outfit was topped off with a pair of Joan Crawford f**k-me pumps in the ugliest non-gray color the world's ever seen.  Benanti deserves an Emmy for a performance that overcame that wardrobe.

The party dresses were hideous.  Benanti's look like a bed ruffle and apparently we're the only ones who'll call it out or note that Benanti had to do a quick ad-lib because the train that dragged on the ground was stepped on by another actor.  Stop hiring these idiots who don't know a thing about musicals.  Fitzgibbons dressed Carrie in what appeared to be a couch cover --  shiny, heavy cloth that barely moved as she danced.

All of this and so much more was wrong and some critics want to blame Carrie Underwood?

The scene leading up to "Something Good" and the number itself works only because of Underwood and Moyer.   Underwood's wearing yet another lousy outfit (in a musical, clothes are light for movement in the musical numbers -- they are not heavy, stiff fabric),  she and Moyer are in yet another poorly staged scene and, on top of all that, now the camera work has gone poorly and you get a noticeable camera jerk as they're staring at one another with desire.

Carrie Underwood has nothing to be ashamed of.  Her acting was more than fine.  Some are confused because they wanted Julie Andrews' sweetness.  That's one way to portray Maria.  Megan Hilty could have pulled that off and done so believably.  But it's not Underwood's temperament and she would have come off like a Julie Andrews impersonator.  Instead, she elected to explore a Maria who was more sensible and less gossamer (which is actually similar to how the part was written and how it was originally played on Broadway).  She made her character believable and fully dimensional.  That's all any actor or actress can hope for.

In addition to Underwood, special praise needs to go to Stephen Moyer, Laura Benanti and Michael Campayno.  That's really it. If we felt like being really generous?  We could add that Christian Borle has become the 21st century's Paul Lynde faster than anyone could have guessed.  That's really about it.  (We don't comment positively or negatively on child actors.)

The special had many, many problems.

The hit Carrie Underwood and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical provided NBC with most likely means at least another live attempt of some musical.  If and when that happens, NBC would be smart to hire some people who know what they're doing.

That means no more Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, for starters.  Their musicals are stiff.  That's true of the film Chicago, it's true of all of them.  They may love musicals but they don't know how to make them.

That's why everyone remembered Bette Midler from their TV musical Gypsy.  If you missed the problem, Midler was playing Mama Rose.  She's not supposed to be the star of Gypsy.  In the film of Gypsy, Rosalind Russell played Mama Rose.  Natalie Wood played Gypsy Rose Lee, the main character.  Zadan and Meron nearly destroyed 2007's Hairspray with the opening number "Good Morning Baltimore" -- the worst staged musical number since Summer Stock's "Howdy Neighbor) Happy Harvest" but at least Summer Stock had Judy Garland to pull the sing-while-driving-a-tractor number off.

Craig and Neil consider themselves musical experts.  Certainly, they know all the trivia and facts.  But what they aren't is artists.  And, more than anything else, last week's live broadcast of The Sound of Music demonstrated that.

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