On Thursday, NBC aired a live production of the classic musical The Sound of Music. It starred country singer and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood in the iconic role of Maria and True Blood star Stephen Moyer as the stern but warmhearted Captain Von Trapp. The evening was a rousing success for the network. It earned NBC 18.4 million viewers, its best night since 2009.
It was easy to miss that fact, however. Media reports were mostly about the casting of Underwood and her performance. The singer received angry tweets both before and after that can be summed up to “you’re not Julie Andrews.” Other people in social media (at least on mine) got angry that the songs were in a different order than they were in the 1965 film.
The first issue is ridiculous. Characters are not museum pieces. They are played by different performers over time. Should all new versions of Cabaret be avoided because no one else is Joel Grey? Of course not. It’s a wonderful play and people should see it. Besides, Alan Cumming and Neil Patrick Harris, among others, have all received acclaim for their performances as Cabaret’s Emcee. That’s how theater works.
And really, all you need for Maria is an excellent singer who can look a little awkward, out of place, and naïve. I once saw Marie Osmond play Maria, and she brought all of those things into a perfect performance. Underwood did too. Sure, there are trained actors who could have played the role, but few of them could have brought live theater to 18.4 million viewers who may never have seen it before.
Of course, the other criticism also is silly. They were performing the stage musical, not the movie. The songs were in the correct order: the original order, telling the original story the original way. The very fact that people complained about this goes to show the need for this production. Not enough people are seeing live theater anymore.
Live theater, invented by pagan cultures and suppressed for centuries by the Church, is a magical experience. For a few short hours, hundreds of people suppress their logical minds and enter a new reality together. Through the suspension of disbelief, cultural stories, values, and ideas are passed along. The magic can be uplifting, thought-provoking, subversive, or inspiring. It can change lives or it can make life a constant garden of rich ideas.
But it can’t do any of that if no one sees it, and theater is in trouble. Once the sleazy pastime of the underclass, live performance has become the exclusive property of the wealthy. The cost for a single seat can be over $100 for a quality, professional production, and your average person simply can’t afford it. Add to that competition of nearly free entertainment coming from Netfix, Xboxes, and the smart devices that each one of us carries in our pockets, and real live performance is hitting an era where fewer people attend and younger people will stop caring.
To have 18.4 million people view a three-hour long classic is a success. If even half of them were viewing their first live production, nine million more people have been exposed to theater than had been last week. That’s magic.
The Sound of Music is about a young woman who uses music to bring joy to children and warm the frozen heart of a grieving man. Last week, the venerable musical got a chance to bring the power of music into another generation of homes and expose them to the power of live performance. The world of theater needed that, and I hope that NBC does this again. I welcome any ally that wants to help show the world how magical live theater can be.