Saturday, December 14, 2013

Honey, Either Get Some Acting Lessons Or Stick To Country

Happy December, Black Friday Survivors!

Today, we’re going to talk about a musical whose film version (for some unknown reason) has become associated with Christmastime and just underwent a pretty ballsy re-treatment.  I am talking of none other than the timeless, family-friendly classic, The Sound Of Music!

The Sound Of Music
Music: Richard Rogers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II (This was Rogers & Hammerstein’s final musical together, Hammerstein died 9 months after the Broadway premiere)
Book: Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Broadway Debut: 1959
Tony Nominations-Wins: 9-5 (Tied for Best Musical with Fiorello!)
Based On: Maria von Trapp's autobiography/memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers

The Musical
Maria is a wannabe nun in pre-WWII Austria with a pretty set of pipes and a powerful connection to the Alps. The other nuns and Mother Superior are pretty sure she’s not cut out for nunnery life, so they send her to babysit a negligent naval captain’s 7 pissant kids. She wins the little ankle-biters and their hormone-driven, 16 year-old sister over by making them play clothes out of curtains and teaching them how to sing. With music back in the house, the negligent naval captain regains interest in his children. *Hear that, inner city education systems? The arts improve lives!!!* He becomes so taken with Maria during a sexually charged Ländler dance, he ditches his longtime girlfriend (he’d been stringing her along for a while, but she was kind of a bitch anyway) and marries the help. Five minutes later, the Nazis move in and “offer” the captain a position with the Third Reich.  The captain says “in your dreams!” So they divert the Nazis by singing at a big, fancy festival, which they use to escape to Maria’s old abbey.  The nuns rig the Nazis’ car and the family escapes on foot over Maria’s beloved mountain to Switzerland. *Happy Dance!*
Fun Fact: Mary Martin was 46 when she debuted as Maria on Broadway!

The Movie
Give or take a song or two and Rolfe going full-blown Nazi (literally) on his ex-girlfriend instead of manning up and helping her family escape the mean ol' Third Reich, the film version is pretty true to the musical (unlike Guys & Dolls). It won 5 Oscars and is played annually around Christmastime.

Seriously, when did this become part of the Christmas TV-special repertoire?  It’s like broadcasting The Ten Commandments every Easter: It's a PASSOVER movie. It has nothing to do with Easter!!! I’ve heard that it all spawns from that one line “…brown paper packages tied up with strings.” But that’s just stupid.  When I think brown paper packages, I think FedEx, not Christmastime.  Furthermore, it takes place in the summer!  …With Nazis!  Nazis are kind of the opposite of any Christmas-related happenings.  It makes no sense to me.  But then again, there are nuns. Singing nuns.  So they might be on to something after all.

But I digress…

The “New” Movie
The Sound Of Music Live! was broadcast (live) on NBC last week. Over 18 million viewers tuned in; most of them probably for the same reason I did: to see how much of a train wreck it was gonna be.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Then again, any excuse to expose the world and younger generations to the majesty of musical theatre is a good thing. Though I am typically opposed to using mainstream star power in musical theatre, I tried going in with a relatively open mind (mind you, they didn’t make it easy. Carrie Underwood looks like a virginal-but-not St. Paulie Girl in all the ads).

To my surprise, I found it pretty enjoyable. I mean, how judgmental can you get when you've got 7 kids in sailor uniforms singing about a drink with jam and bread? The only train wreck was (unfortunately) Carrie Underwood’s acting!  I knew no one was ever going to be Julie Andrews, they weren’t going to have the lush mountains of Austria as a backdrop, and it was going to be live, so mistakes might happen.  The broadcast went off pretty well, give or take some actors showing their nerves on camera. No monumental screw-ups/deaths is a success in my book. I was taken aback by the diversity casting (i.e. a black nun.... a black chief nun.... in lily-white Austria.... in the 1930s) for about a millisecond, but I got over it because c'mon! It's Audra! But back to Carrie.  I’ve got nothing against Carrie Underwood. She’s a very lovely lady (so I don’t see why they felt the need to photoshop the crap out of all her pictures), she’s got killer country pipes, and she calls all the sports world to prayer for Sunday Night Football. It was gutsy of her to even take on that role at all. She did what was asked of her with a smile on her face while not trying to be Julie Andrews. 

HOWEVER, my real beef is with the individual who decided to cast her as one of musical theatre’s most iconic characters without even asking and/or caring if she had any acting ability… whatsoever.  I’ve seen trees with less wooden acting than her. I’ve seen a middle school (not even high school) production of Seussical with more interpersonal chemistry. It was pretty painful to experience a grown woman practice the “If I don’t blink, they’ll think I’m acting” mantra. Especially when she's sharing the soundstage with Great White Way royalty, Audra McDonald (who was fucking FLAWLESS... as usual).  I didn’t think much of the guy who played the Captain (I don’t watch True Blood or Vampire Diaries or whatever show he’s from), but he didn’t have to garner the charm and appeal Maria’s character did, so he’s off my hook. And I wanna know who did Rolf's makeup.  I hear the guy's a college student, but they gussied him up to look like he's in his thirties!

A lot of people expressed their displeasure with the harsh criticism aimed at Ms. Underwood. I’ve heard a lot of “You try performing on live TV that millions of people will see in a role that was once perfected by Julie Andrews!”  I realize this was a very difficult project to tackle.  TV hasn’t seen a live musical broadcast like this in over 50 years (which I applaud their attempts to restore); it must have been very harrowing for even the seasoned Broadway veterans present to perform a musical while playing to a camera. But then again, that’s what these people get paid to do. If you can’t do it without looking like you’re pinch hitting in your first high school play, why should you get the biggest paycheck of the evening? Find some other cute blonde with pipes out there among the 7 billion of us who can! I don't care how famous you are: if you'rean Oscar winner but you can't sing, you probably shouldn't sign on for a broadcast of The Magic Flute. Just saying...

Other highlights of the evening included the ever adorable Christian Borle, some pretty sweet sets, and (of course) Audra singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (which she delivered like a BOSS. She even got the theatrically-challenged Underwood to unleash the waterworks!)

Chills. Every time.

So I give the broadcast a 7.5 rating. Nothing historically Earth-shattering, but it was a pleasant evening of entertainment with the kiddies that will hopefully pave the way for more live musical theatre on more people’s TVs! Just cast talent to fit the venue next time!

The Real Story
Though there’s no nail-biting escape or saccharine songs or Hitler Youth boyfriends (or Max Detweiler), the real story of the von Trapp family is pretty interesting. Though Maria really was a postulate and did go to stay with the von Trapps, she was also a schoolteacher and was sent there to tutor just one of Georg von Trapp’s children, who had to be homeschooled while she was recovering from scarlet fever (which is how the captain’s first wife – the granddaughter of the inventor of the torpedo! – died). She then became close with the other children and the captain (Maria von Trapp wrote that even though she eventually grew to love her husband, she wasn’t in love with the captain at the time of their marriage and she was really “marrying” the children). Maria and Georg were married for more than 10 years before the Anschluss and had 3 children together, who joined the other 7 in the Trapp Family Singers.

Until the family went broke – due to a bad business venture – they had only sung together as a hobby. The family resorted to dismissing most of their staff and renting out parts of the villa. Georg actually was opposed to his family getting into the music business, as he felt the music business as manner of income was beneath them.  Maria started booking the children at events and concerts to get by until they started receiving wider recognition, which led to even sweeter gigs and paychecks (like Vienna!). Germany tried repeatedly to woo Georg to accept the position in their navy. And though he was tempted (they were broke, remember?), he ultimately could not serve the Nazi regime and decided to flee Austria.
Hold up a lonely goatherd minute!  Hiking from Salzburg to Switzerland is impossible! The Trapp family did vacate Austria when the Nazis offered the captain a position in the German navy, but not to Switzerland or in the middle of the night. The family would have ended up in Berchtesgaden and virtually within sight of Adolf Hitler's vacation house. So yeah… oops! Luckily, Georg von Trapp was born in at-the-time Italian territory.  So the family could legally claim Italian citizenship, and they were able to take a train to Italy in broad daylight. From there, they traveled to England and then sailed to America. They lived in Merion, Pennsylvania (LOCAL!!!) for a while before settling in Vermont (my parents actually saw Maria von Trapp in Vermont when they went down there for a vacation! Apparently she was a little nutty in her golden years…).
Let’s see, what else can I reveal to shatter your Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer dreams? Oh yeah! All the kids’ names and ages were changed, Georg von Trapp was actually a very attentive and doting father, and the von Trap kids claim that Maria had some pretty wild manic-depressive tendencies. Cool, huh? Finally, Y’know that song “Edelweiss?” I want to clarify that it is not an Austrian song or the Austrian National Anthem. It was written by Rodgers & Hammerstein for the show. The movie is actually pretty widely ignored in Austria and Germany. Who knew?!

My final thought is that I recommend that everyone see the original film and THEN the new live broadcast version.  One is obviously better than the other, but the latter deserves some love too… mainly because of Audra. I’d probably want to become a nun to if I got to hang out with her!

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