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The Three Marias: Carrie, Julie & Mary and a Rogers & Hammerstein classic

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Broadway musicals

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Last Thursday nearly every music loving son tuned in to watch Carrie Underwood perform the classic Broadway musical The Sound of Music live. Some eighteen and a half million folks, to be exact, watched the darling of Country Music perform. However, apparently some spoil sports (probably Country Music haters) didn’t like Carrie’s version of Maria. Now that all the haters have vented their spleens and their day in the sun, it’s time for someone who not only has seen Hollywood’s baroque version, but the original Broadway production with Nashville’s favorite daughter Mary Martin—namely this humble reviewer.

Yes, Julie Andrews and her spectacular voice put in a wonderful performance in the 1965 movie and considering how Hollywood has chronically screws up other Broadway plays over the years (Mame is one Hollywood fiasco that comes to mind) that was a miracle in itself. Most of the critics of Carrie Underwood have only seen the Julie Andrews adaptation of the stage play and found Miss Underwood’s version wanting. While nostalgia is fine, they really are just talking through their hat when they criticize Miss Underwood’s Thursday performance.

For one thing, the Hollywood producers dragged the play down with additional songs that were nowhere near the quality of the Broadway stage version and detracted from the original; they also made key changes to the script which made the story’s climax ring false. Spectacular helicopter shots, location scenery and Cinemascope aside, it was really only Julie Andrews fantastic voice which made the movie a success. Most of the other actor’s performances (including Christopher Plummer’s) were wooden at best. Bear in mind, the movie version had infinite takes to get each scene right; neither Broadway nor the NBC productions did.

Live performances are a whole different animal, both Broadway and TV. When performing live, one mistake can mean instant death for a production at any time. The Golden Age of TV is rife with tales of live productions gone wrong; the same holds true for Broadway. Sometimes the results are hilarious; mostly they are just embarrassing. Thursday night, I noticed Carrie almost stumbled as she came down off the “mountain.” Almost but not quite; the rest of her stage performance, if not flawless, was certainly well done and her vocal performance was flawless.

Carrie’s supporting cast varied from very good to great; Audra McDonald’s Mother Superior’s operatic voice was stunning, although I’m not sure that operatic vocal pyrotechnics were exactly right for this musical. Similarly, the love rival, played by Laura Benanti (as Baroness Elsa Schrader), managed to put in an excellent and nuanced performance and the television camera caught all those subtleties on her face which would have been impossible on either the big screen and on the Broadway stage. At times the orchestra would overwhelm the singing, but that was a matter of doing sound mixing on the fly and a difficult feat to achieve perfectly in a live performance such as this.

For those of us so privileged to have seen Mary Martin’s iconic performance on Broadway, any other production pales in comparison, including—sorry folks—Julie Andrews. No, Mary Martin did not have a mountaintop in Austria to lip-sync the opening song on and she did not have the luxury of infinite takes on a soundstage without having to deal with the unpredictability of a live audience where people may be coughing, talking or snoring; but her performance was wonderful nonetheless. Of the three actresses, Mary Martin, Carrie Underwood and Julie Andrews all put in a great performance, but Mary Martin was the one who created the role and who is really most closely associated with it; Carrie and Julie were both excellent and it would be hard put to say whose was the better. Certainly Carrie Underwood’s singing was no worse than the great Miss Andrews.

Broadway staging is of necessity more suggestive than realistic. I remember the scene with Maria on the mountaintop; Mary Martin was wheeled out on a dolly made to look like a mountain peak to sing this show-stopper. Yet it worked and that is the magic of live Broadway musicals. Carrie Underwood’s sets were somewhat more realistic, but still more suggestive than graphic; and they too worked. Moreover, the sets seem to have been laid out so that one melded into the other seamlessly, allowing Carrie and Captain Von Trapp to go straight from his mansion to the wedding chapel without batting an eye. The Hollywood production had millions of money to do location shoots in the Austrian
Alps and travelogue scenery; yet for all those elaborate production values, they still were no more effective in carrying the musical than either Broadway’s or NBC’s less over the top but more human scale sets.

So while I would be hard put to denigrate Julie Andrews’ beloved film rendition of the stage play, much less Mary Martin’s definitive versions, having seen all three, I would say that Thursday’s performance by Carrie was certainly on the same level—and that is a rarified altitude indeed.

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