Open Mic

If Only NBC Had the Guts Carrie Underwood Has

Chuck Ross Posted December 6, 2013 at 9:32 AM

As predicted by just about everyone on the planet, Carrie Underwood sang beautifully on last night’s live version of NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” in a production that was torpedoed and sunk by her lack of acting experience. To call her performance stiff and wooden would almost be generous.

Any production of “The Sound of Music” lives or dies by who plays Maria, and it was gutsy of Underwood to take the part. But NBC should have had the guts to nix her casting. It was unfair to both her and us to use this huge platform to see whether she could act. One could have given her a screen test and then politely told her to come back after she learned how to act.

“The Sound of Music” is the musical version of the story of the von Trapp family singers. If only NBC had listened to the suggestion of Francoise von Trapp, made in a blog entry a year ago.

Francoise, the real granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, wrote: “Carrie Underwood as Maria? Seriously? I mean, I have nothing against her personally -- she's an extremely talented country singer, but I'm pretty sure my father is repeatedly rolling over in his grave. Since the movie version of ‘Sound of Music’ won an Academy Award the year I was born, it's always been easy to identify with Julie Andrews' portrayal of my grandmother. It's a little harder to envision Carrie that way. (But I do realize that's what happens when Hollywood freezes time.) And while the girl can sing (although her voice lacks the soprano purity of Julie Andrews) can she act? I'd like to know who else was in the running. Personally, I'd have put my money on Anne Hathaway, who in her upcoming role as Fantine in ‘Les Miserables,’ proves that she can act and sing.”

Brilliant. Why isn’t Francoise working in Hollywood?

The irony about NBC blowing it by miscasting the crucial lead part in “The Sound of Music” is that the original Broadway star of that show, Mary Martin, starred in another live musical on NBC, originally in 1955. The network finally was able to put it on videotape five years later and today, almost 60 years after it was first broadcast, that musical still sparkles in its dazzling buoyancy. It was “Peter Pan,” and it is among the fondest TV memories of millions of baby boomers.

The original, live version of “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin as that boy who never grows up, was seen as part of NBC’s "Producer’s Showcase” on Monday night, March 7, 1955. Before airing, the show had had a limited run on Broadway. When it was shown by NBC, it was seen by 65 million viewers, at that time the largest audience to ever have watched a TV program. It was so successful that NBC had Martin and the cast -- including Cyril Ritchard as a wonderfully over-the-top Captain Hook -- perform it live, on-air, again the next year.

By 1960, videotape and color were working pretty well, so NBC recruited Martin -- then appearing on Broadway as Maria in the original stage version of “The Sound of Music” -- to stage “Peter Pan” one last time. From then on this color videotape version was repeated several times on TV, and then later transferred to VHS and DVD for us to see it anytime we want, at home.

Jack Gould, who was the first TV reviewer for The New York Times, had watched and reviewed hundreds of TV shows between 1947 and that Monday night in March 1955 when 'Peter Pan" originally aired live on NBC. He wrote that the show was an “exhilarating tonic. ... The magic of TV and the wonder of make-believe were joined in an experience not soon to be forgotten. What made ‘Peter Pan’ so supremely delightful? Miss Martin, yes; many times yes. Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook too. Sir James M. Barrie [who wrote the original play] as well. But there was something elusive and indefinable, a quality and a heart. Call it sublime fusion of skill and inspiration. … The greatness of the ‘Peter Pan’ telecast stemmed from a marriage of media under ideal circumstances. The advantages of ‘live’ television and the advantages of living theatre were merged as one. Alone neither medium could have offered the miracle of Monday evening.”

“Peter Pan” also worked so well, Gould wrote, because of the brilliance of the production, in “the heavenly flying through the air of Miss Martin, in her glorious performance that had spontaneity and yet was so professionally perfect and assured. The dances of Jerome Robbins? How different in their originality from the TV norm. And the style of Mr. Ritchard, so sure and deft and magnificent fun. There were, in short, many jewels, each brought to its own distinctive sparkle by patience, imagination and fantastic hard work.”

If you can, give yourself and your family a gift this holiday season and check out this “Peter Pan” on DVD.

Ah, if only NBC had listened to Francoise von Trapp and had cast Anne Hathaway as Maria. If it had, then all the TV critics would probably be singing NBC’s praises this morning as Gould did 60 years ago: “The National Broadcasting Company is entitled to unstinting praise for its wisdom and vision in forgetting formula-thinking in television and opening up its schedule to accommodate ‘Peter Pan.’ In the jargon of the trade it may be called ‘big television’ but far more accurately it is sensible television, even elementary television. … Excitement. That was what ‘Peter Pan’ had …”

Instead we got a “Sound of Music” that seemed more like a hail-Mary pass to a receiver going long downfield, an act of desperation from a network that is struggling to reclaim the greatness it once had.