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A valiant Sound of Music recording from the TV broadcast with stronger supporting players
on 5 December 2015
The golden anniversary of the film of The Sound of Music has given me the right occasion to review this NBC TV cast recording.
Two years ago NBC's live telecast of the Broadway musical with Carrie Underwood as Maria gave viewers who only know the film the chance to see a TV production of the musical with its original stage script. I give credit to American TV networks for giving a TV-viewing audience access to live musical theatre again with these productions. NBC has also followed up this production with live Christmas-period telecasts of Peter Pan and The Wiz. Other American TV networks are planning to get in on the act (as witness the upcoming Fox version of Grease).
Be that as it may, I've noted that this recording does not do justice to the magnificent score. I know that these live TV musicals have an energy that comes from the spirit of amateurs just putting on a show. However, be that as it may, this recording does not do justice to this magnificent R&H score. I give credit to the efforts of this cast and the music team, but I find that it lacks that last bit of sparkle and freshness. It does not help that the cast recorded this cast recording BEFORE the broadcast, not after. The front-rank principals tend to be leaden and wooden in their characterisations, especially when compared to the secondary characters (Mother Abbess, Max and Elsa).
The draw of this production is, of course, Carrie Underwood as Maria. I worried that her casting might make the hills alive with the sound of disaster. However, the disaster was not as bad as I anticipated. Despite her acting problems and leaden characterisation of the part, I still give credit to her for essaying the role of Maria. Carrie did her best to adapt to the sustained phrasing required by the R&H songs, ditching the country twang. This was a welcome relief. I noted that she had problems with her phrasing and her breathing, notably in the title song. Also, her high notes tend to sound rather nasal, harsh and strained, probably from her use of the chest voice. I notice this a lot in her Lonely Goatherd. It would be nice if ladies who essay this role could have a nice, floating, sustained voice when they sing. Personally, of all her songs, I felt that she fared the best in her rendition of My Favourite Things, which (in the original stage version) she sings with the Mother Abbess before leaving the Abbey for Captain von Trapp's house. I also give her credit for attempting to reach out to the children in her two main numbers with them.
On this cast recording, we don't hear much of Stephen Moyer's portrayal of Captain von Trapp. He only shows up for a few numbers of which Edelweiss is his standout solo. Moyer's reading of Edelweiss is sensitive and tender, but I couldn't feel his feelings about Austria when I heard him sing it. His singing was strong enough on Something Good and No Way to Stop it, but a bit leaden on the Sound of Music reprise.
I liked Audra McDonald's portrayal of the Mother Abbess. She offers an expertly-characterised portrayal of the part. It is coincidental that Audra essayed the Mother Abbess 20 years after her first professional R&H role, that of Carrie in the Broadway revival of Carousel. She offers a lovely, nuanced, non-stentorian version of Climb Ev'ry Mountain. I am well aware that R&H originally wrote this song for an opera singer (Patricia Neway). However, Audra's lovely rendition is one of the highlights of this cast recording. The nuns who sang with her in Maria could have done with just a bit more characterisation. Jessica Molaskey as Sister Berthe did not quite assert herself and show her biting, acerbic, disagreeable side in her portrayal. Christiane Noll as Sister Margaretta fared better as did Elena Shaddow as Sophia. I noted that they were making a genuine effort to characterise their songs. In the big nun ensembles (the Preludium and the Wedding scene) I could tell that the nuns were enjoying what they were doing. It's a pity that the wedding scene was rearranged so that the Confitemini Domino comes BEFORE the processional and the reprise of Maria.
Of the other supporting players, I rather liked Laura Beranti (a former Maria) as Elsa. She joins Christian Borle as Mac in the two Elsa-Max songs. I noted that How can Love Survive? fared better. Beranti better delivered the ironic, cynical lyrics, while Borle in this studio recording of the song was a bit leaden and wooden. However, curiously enough, I found that Max fared better in No Way to Stop It.
In most Sound of Music productions, the seven children are the stars of the show. Though I occasionally wished they could sing with a bit more freshness, they offered lovely readings of their group parts. Their Sound of Music reprise is lovely, but I wish they could have stepped out and been less stilted during So Long, Farewell. Ariane Rinehart as Liesl fares well in her duet with Michael Campayno on Sixteen Going on Seventeen and also in the Act Two reprise with Maria. I did wish that Campayno could feel more like a youth who is having fun and putting on a fake maturity.
This production presents the songs in the order of the stage show, replacing An Ordinary Couple with Something Good. We don't hear I Have Confidence on the journey to Captain von Trapp's villa. The music team combined the Robert Russell Bennett arrangements with the Irwin Kostal film arrangements. This is nice enough, but sometimes it leads to some strange transitions. For instance, Sixteen Going on Seventeen starts like the Broadway version but uses the dance breaks from the film. Also, I spot some clunky transitions in Lonely Goatherd and Climb Ev'ry Mountain. The film version of the former does not include the brass band section since it was conceived as a puppet show sequence. Also, Climb Ev'ry Mountain uses the lower film key and modulates awkwardly into the Broadway key for the second half. Elsewhere, the arrangements work, such as during Edelweiss and So Long, Farewell. The only thing that bothers me about the music direction is that the conductor accelerates the tempo and does not keep to a consistent tempo from the start. Kostal played around with the tempo on the film soundtrack recordings to suit the film pacing. Personally, it does not work and it might not be in keeping with the spirit of Rodgers' music.
Ultimately, when all is said and done, this might not be the best post-65 recording of the R&H musical. That honour goes to the 1999 Australian revival recording with Lisa McCune. It was a reverent and fresh recording that captured a superb cast and the special live atmosphere of a theatre performance. Yet this valiant effort can still be a worthy keepsake of the NBC broadcast.