‘The Sound of Music Live’


How do you solve a problem like Maria, that chipper almost-nun turned nanny who saves a broken family and outwits the Nazis? Not only is she based on an actual person, but she’s a star turn requiring killer vocals and unlimited amounts of charm and pluck. If these demands weren’t enough, anyone who plays her must live in the shadow of two indelible portrayals: Julie Andrews in the film, and to a lesser extent, Mary Martin in the original stage production. It’s a tough gig that invites comparisons and stirs up quite a lot of nostalgic emotion. NBC took a huge risk last night, dedicating its entire primetime slot to a live performance of the original stage version of the show (book by Lindsay & Crouse). Billed as The Sound of Music Live!, the telecast did have a major problem with Maria. While it wasn’t quite a success, it was definitely worth the effort.

Some history: the musical wouldn’t exist without Mary Martin, the Texas gal turned beloved Broadway icon. She owned the rights to the story and approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to supply a few songs for a play, and they in turn offered to make it a musical. The Sound of Music premiered in 1959 (ten years after the trio experienced a major hit with South Pacific). Incidentally, the show has never been much of a critical favorite, with both the original production and film receiving mixed notices. But it didn’t matter, the show has belonged to the audience since its first performance.

Martin played Maria to standing room crowds for almost two years. She never missed a performance, not even when she filmed her iconic Peter Pan in 1960. That Martin, 45 going on 46 and already a grandmother, was probably too old to play a young postulant didn’t register with critics and audiences. Mary Martin radiated perpetual youthfulness, charm and love from the stage, and that star quality was enough to make the crowds suspend their disbelief. She was surrounded by great talent, including Theodore Bikel as the Captain, and most notably the dignified, Tony-winning dramatic soprano Patricia Neway as the Reverend Mother (Neway was actually six years younger than Mary). The show was the biggest hit of the season and won the Best Musical Tony over Gypsy (in a tie with Fiorello!). Martin received her third Tony as Maria, besting Ethel Merman’s iconic Rose. Florence Henderson headlined the national tour. Meanwhile, in London, the musical opened without an established star and became the longest running show in West End history. The show itself had become the attraction.

For the 1965 film, screenwriter Ernest Lehman smoothed out the narrative and added some conflict to the relationship between Maria and the kids, and also found better placement for some of the songs. Two sophisticated songs for Max and Elsa were dropped. One of Lehman’s more curious choices was to make Elsa a Baroness, stripping her of her political opinions and CEO status, while setting her up as a romantic villain, which was not how she was portrayed in the original production. Rodgers added two new songs (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”) to help flesh out Maria. Because of its overwhelming popularity, this film has become what most people expect when they see the musical onstage. The 1981 London revival starring Petula Clark was the first to incorporate material from the film, and other productions have followed suit, including the 1998 Broadway and 2006 London revivals.

As for NBC’s mixed bag telecast, the easiest and most obvious target for criticism is Carrie Underwood, as the entire event was built around her. Ms. Underwood, an American Idol alum and country star, has a great voice, but is severely lacking in acting ability. As I watched the show, I noticed the dichotomy between her singing and speaking. She became increasingly relaxed in her singing, but displayed a jarring disconnect with the dialogue. She just seemed to say words, without registering any emotion or feeling. At first I thought Ms. Underwood was a poor choice for Maria, but as the evening progressed I started to think Maria was a poor choice for Ms. Underwood. She probably would have been better served by Annie Get Your Gun, or some similar show that would play to her strengths and personality.

Ultimately, what Underwood needed was strong direction and she didn’t get that from either Rob Ashford or Beth McCarthy-Miller. Ashford has been assigned many classic musicals but has a perilous tendency to not trust the material. His choreography is quite often all style and very little substance. Case in point: the teenagers in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” doing a spirited polka through a wooden hillside. I suppose I should just be grateful he didn’t have nuns hitch kicking around the abbey for no reason. What was presented on TV was merely blocking, with far too many intrusive commercial breaks. Issues with pacing and timing were rampant, even marring those scenes dominated by the Broadway stalwarts.

Audra McDonald’s Abbess was very good and her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was the musical apex of the evening, but while she had the grace she lacked the gravitas, and only felt like an authentic Mother Superior in her scenes alone with Underwood. All other times, she felt more like the popular nun as opposed to the head nun. The best performance of the night came from Laura Benanti as Elsa. In many ways, the character is far more fascinating in her politicized role onstage, representing those who chose ambivalent appeasement while Hitler took power. Benanti looked like a million dollars, sang like a dream, and her realization that the relationship was over during the last line of “No Way to Stop It” was the finest piece of acting of the night. (It’s also worth noting that Ms. Benanti was social media’s favorite: her name trended *worldwide* on Twitter for five hours). The cast album is worth getting just for these two ladies.

My quibbles aside, I was glad to see a three hour musical presented live on network television. I want to see more presentations like this. I applaud the risk, which seems to have paid off for NBC in press and especially in the ratings. While it ultimately fell short of expectations, it’s certainly worth another try. And I hope whatever it is, it stars Laura Benanti.

“The Sound of Music” – Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall presented the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music on Tuesday evening as a gala fundraiser for the venue. In previous years, the Hall has presented similar concerts of Carousel and South Pacific. While this evening’s presentation of the score was not as memorable as those two previous outings (that Carousel wasn’t recorded is simply a crime – it was a dazzling success), it was a pleasure hearing those gorgeous songs performed live with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Inspired by actual events, The Sound of Music was originally a stage vehicle for Mary Martin and later a blockbuster film starring Julie Andrews. It tells the story of a young postulant who becomes governess to seven children under the stern command of their Naval officer father. Throw in some feisty nuns and some evil Nazis and you’ve got the ingredients for a spectacular audience favorite.

The orchestrations in the program are credited solely to Robert Russell Bennett, but there were several pieces that sounded like Irwin Kostal’s arrangements for the film, including main title which was used as an overture for the evening (the stage show begins promptly with the haunting “Preludium”), “Do-Re-Mi” and the lower key version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” I was pleasantly surprised to see the score presented in its original 1959 order. Maria and the Mother Abbess shared “My Favorite Things” in the Abbey, while Maria sang “The Lonely Goatherd” during the thunderstorm, etc. For the concert, “I Have Confidence” was added and “Something Good” replaced “An Ordinary Couple.”

Laura Osnes made for a sweet if somewhat bland Maria, singing well but without the spark that has made others so indelible in the role. Tony Goldwyn was a vocally weak and colorless Captain. Met Opera mezzo and fan favorite Stephanie Blythe gave the evening’s master class in singing, with a stirring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Brooke Shields couldn’t quite handle the vocal demands of Elsa, but carried herself with grace and glamour, earning exit applause. (Fans of the film may be surprised how much more politicized and nicer the character is on stage). Patrick Page practically purred his way through Max’s lines. Veanne Cox, Cotter Smith and Reed Birney were on hand for smaller roles, while Daniel Truhitte, Nicholas Hammand, Kym Karath and Heather Menzies (of the film) made brief cameos. Special mention to the Women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir, who supplied breathtaking renditions of the liturgical music in the show.

Gary Griffin staged the concert (performed completely off-book), but while the evening was well-paced, the energy was inconsistent. David Ives provided the concert adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s original book, which didn’t make much of a case for a full-fledged revival. Joshua Bergasse provided the small amounts of choreography seen throughout the evening, most notably the “Laendler.” A misstep was using projections of Austrian pictures and site specific locales from the film against the back wall of the Stern Auditorium’s stage. These pictures, presented in a sort of widescreen panorama distracted from the performers. The cast wore concert attire that suggested at character; the only dirndls to be found were those audience devotees who dressed up.

Patricia Neway (1919-2012)

Patricia Neway - Lady M

Operatic soprano and Tony-winner Patricia Neway, best known for her associations with Gian Carlo Menotti and Rodgers and Hammerstein, died peacefully in her home in Corinth, Vermont on January 24, 2012 of natural causes. Ms. Neway was 92.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1919, Neway studied at the Mannes College of Music, making her professional debut in the Broadway chorus of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne in 1942. Her first leading role in an opera came courtesy of a 1942 production of Cosi fan Tutti with the Chautauqua Opera. Neway performed regularly with the NYCO from 1951-1966, making her debut in the world premiere of Tamkin’s The Dybbuk and originating The Mother in Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (opposite Beverly Sills). The soprano was featured soloist of the Opera Comique in Paris from 1952-54, singing Tosca and Katherina Mihaylovna in Risurrezione, as well as principal singer in the first two seasons of the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.

A self-proclaimed hybrid, Ms. Neway famously helped Menotti bring opera to Broadway. She created a sensation as Magda Sorel in the Pulitzer Prize winning original Broadway production of The Consul, in which she stopped the show with the climactic aria “To This We’ve Come.”  She would go onto sing the role in the opera’s London and Paris premieres, and later recreated the role for television in 1960. Her association with Menotti continued as the Mother in Maria Golovin, a role she premiered in Brussels in 1957, which she later played on Broadway and with the NYCO. Neway also appeared in NYCO productions of The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Most notably, Ms. Neway originated the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music opposite star Mary Martin, introducing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to the public. She won the Best Featured Actress Tony for her efforts. In the 1960s, her association with Rodgers and Hammerstein continued with revivals of The King and I (Lady Thiang) at Lincoln Center and Carousel (Nettie Fowler) at the City Center. Neway also appeared in a 1967 TV version of the latter starring Robert Goulet. (I’m not one hundred percent positive, but I think Ms. Neway is the only person to have played these three roles in major NY productions).

The dramatic soprano retired to Corinth, VT where she lived with her husband John Francis Byrne, who passed away in 2008. Speaking with Ms. Neway’s niece today, I learned that the soprano enjoyed her life immensely, from the success of her career to the privacy of her retirement.  On February 25, Vermont Public Radio will be live streaming a retrospective on the soprano’s career.

Three from the “Applause Libretto Library Series”

While the American musical was at the peak of its popularity, the publishing industry took notice and would publish libretti, especially Random House. Released in hardcover editions, the books presented the entire text of the musical play (spoken and sung) with simplified stage directions to help maintain the narrative. I have a few of these – and in some cases (Candide, Follies), these editions are the only window original script.

It didn’t seem to matter whether the show was a mammoth or minor success, and in some cases even a failure. I have copies of Gypsy, New Girl in Town and The Apple Tree and whenever I can find these vintage copies I pick them up. When I was in college I got to read Anyone Can Whistle’s hot mess of a book thanks to the published copy sitting in the stacks of our library. Many of my first experiences with a stage musical’s text came from these editions. While I was introduced viscerally through film adaptations, I was curious enough to venture to my library to find the book form. The first libretti I read were The Music Man and The Sound of Music and as someone who was unaware of how a show was adapted (and in some cases bowdlerized and bastardized – I’m looking at you Freed Unit), I was surprised to see how different the shows were in their original stage incarnations. Having not seen some of the productions myself, these texts filled in the gaps between songs on many an original cast album.

As the musical fell out of vogue, it seems that the major publishers lost interest. Where Random House has lost interest (major publishers tend to take on smash musicals in lavish and expensive special coffee table editions), Applause Theatre and Cinema Books and Theatre Communications Group have taken up the effort. Between the two of them, many contemporary musicals have been published in text form. (Dramatist’s Play Service and Samuel French also publish libretti, but those are more detailed copies specifically designated for actors).

Recently Applause released three new editions. Classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music have rarely been out of print, but receive new trade paperback editions as part of the Applause Libretto Library Series. There are new introductions from R&H’s Ted Chapin, who comments that the text is taken verbatim from the original Random House editions. While Oklahoma! will continue to be performed as it was originally written, it is not the same for The Sound of Music, as all subsequent revivals have been influenced by the immensely popular film adaptation and incorporating those changes. Rereading The Sound of Music, there is one way in which the stage show intrigues me – there is no rivalry between Maria and Elsa. In the stage show, Elsa (not a baroness, but a shrewd, stylish CEO) has far more interesting dimensions and for one thing actually likes Maria. The break-up has more to do with the differences between her and the Captain over the impending Nazi takeover. Both editions contain photos from their various productions, revivals and film adaptations.

The third entry is the recent smash Avenue Q, the little off-Broadway musical that could (and did). The 2004 Best Musical winner was previously published as part of a lavish (by puppet standards) hardcover book, but this new edition is text only and a little easier on the budget.  The tongue is still planted firmly in cheek, even in book form: there’s a Puppet Police warning in lieu of the regular disclaimer about performance rights (which, incidentally, are available from MTI). Librettist Jeff Whitty has written an afterword in which he discusses the changes that have been made since the show’s original off-Broadway run, including those for the London run, the aftermath of Gary Coleman’s untimely death and the famous George Bush shout out in “For Now.” More enigmatically, Whitty mentions that he deleted one word from this published script, but won’t elaborate what it is. (Perhaps there are some Q aficionados out there who could figure out what it is?)

The Libretto series continues with two more contemporary entries: The Last Five Years and Memphis. I can tell you, it makes this musical theatre nerd a happy camper.

Backstage at ‘The Sound of Music’

Sometimes the show behind the show is as fascinating as the one onstage. Many people don’t really know how much work goes into one single Broadway performance – or the amount of people employed by each particular show, particularly behind the scenes. Jamie DeRoy and Rick McKay made this documentary in 1999, one year into The Sound of Music revival’s run at the Martin Beck Theater. Gaining considerable access, the cameras were allowed into the dressing rooms, the wings, the lobby and in and around the various areas of the performance space. DeRoy talks to actors, stagehands, the wardrobe supervisor, the sound team and even the child wrangler giving one a truly inside look at the goings on of show folk. The production stage manager talks about how the job of the backstage team is to make the audience unaware that there is anyone except the actors in the vicinity of the stage. One of the more interesting elements is seeing departing star Rebecca Luker talk about her upcoming departure from the show, while simultaneously meeting her fresh-faced nineteen year old understudy Laura Benanti (in her Broadway debut) talk about the thrill of replacing the veteran star in the role of Maria.




DVR Reminder: “The Sound of Music” cast on Oprah

For the first time in my life, my father and I will be tuning into Oprah tomorrow afternoon. Why? To check out her hour-long reunion special for The Sound of Music. In honor of the show’s 45th anniversary there has been the theatrical reissue of the film and other events like this TV appearance which will culminate in the November 2 Blu-ray release of the film. A special 45th anniversary edition of the soundtrack will also be released.

There have been various reunions and retrospectives every five years or so, with requisite talk show appearances. Stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer will be joined by Charmian Carr (“Liesl”), Nicholas Hammond (“Friedrich”), Heather Menzies-Urich (“Louisa”), Duane Chase (“Kurt”), Angela Cartwright (“Brigitta”), Debbie Turner (“Marta”) and Kym Karath (“Gretl”). It marks the first time that all nine actors have been reunited since the film’s release in 1965. They will be talking about memories of the film and its impact on the world and their lives, among other anecdotes. (I have to admit, I’m  quite curious how Eleanor Parker is doing and what she thinks about the film’s iconic status).

The episode was originally scheduled for Friday, October 29, but that has since been changed to Thursday, October 28 (tomorrow). Be sure to check your local listings to find out when the episode will be airing.

Win a pair of tickets to see “The Sound of Music” on the big screen

I’m excited to announce my blog’s first ever giveaway! The Sound of Music has turned 45 with a new high definition print and the Blu-ray release on November 2. The perennial classic will return to movie theatres across the country in the first national reissue since 1973. I’ll be heading to one of the 500 theatres for the screening, which includes a sing-along version of the film as well as a pre-film featurette And I’ll Sing Once More, narrated by Rebecca Luker (who played Maria in the 1998 Broadway revival) and features new interviews with Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers.

There will be two separate screenings: Tuesday, October 19 & Tuesday, October 26. I am pleased to announce that I have a pair of tickets to the Oct. 26 screening to give away. (This is all very new to me and quite exciting!)

Two ways in which to enter:

1. Comment on the post below or,

2. Follow me on Twitter (@kevinddaly) and retweet anything I post related to the The Sound of Music contest.

One winner be selected at random when the contest ends (Sunday night at midnight). Two entries allowed per person; one via each method. Any additional entries will lead to disqualification. If you choose to enter via twitter, I need you to follow so I can direct message you. I will notify the winner Monday morning; tickets will be mailed directly to the individual.

For more information, you can visit The Sound of Music 45th Anniversary website. For a list of participating theatres and tickets, check out the Fathom Events website.

Film: “The Sound of Music” turns 45

Remember 2005? There was a lot of hullabaloo over the 75th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, Spamalot somehow bested three superior shows for Best Musical at the Tonys. Meanwhile, the film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, Oklahoma! and the iconic The Sound of Music were celebrating their 60th, 50th and 40th anniversaries, respectively. Special 2 disc editions of the films with never-before-seen features and footage were released and there requisite press appearances by the various cast members who are still with us. It’s hard to believe five years have passed and like any good American institution, it’s time to celebrate another landmark anniversary with style.

Now as The Sound of Music hits its 45th year, 20th Century Fox and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization have taken it up themselves to celebrate with the latest in digital video technology: Blu-ray. A brand-spanking new edition of the film, newly restored and remastered for high definition is being rolled out in early November. There have been some glimpses into the process and the film looks better than ever. The film is more than just a blockbuster; it is a cultural phenomenon. While it was a big hit in its 1959 stage incarnation, the movie took off into the stratosphere upon the release in 1965. The Sound of Music won five Oscars including Best Picture and made a mountain of money – in terms of grosses adjusted for inflation, it ranks third behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars on the all-time list. The movie ran for several years in its first release and continues to grow in popularity. And like many others around the world, I hold a special place for the film.

Ever since I can remember, there was an annual airing of the film around Easter. The first time I was introduced to it, I was genuinely surprised to see Mary Poppins dressed down as a blonde tomboy twirling in the Austrian alps. (I was about four years old).  As a very young child, I wasn’t allowed to stay up for the whole thing (it was a Sunday airing and there was school the next day). In fact, it wasn’t until I was almost ten I even knew the Captain and Maria even got married! But every year, I got to see a little more and a little more of the film until I eventually saw it all. I was even given a souvenir program from the initial engagement. When I was in 8th grade, there was a big to-do over a new VHS edition remastered by George Lucas’ THX which placed the 175 minute musical epic on one video cassette for the first time. I still have that copy. The first DVD I ever bought was – surprise, surprise – The Sound of Music. I have the soundtrack on LP as well as three CD editions. I even upgraded to that 40th anniversary DVD edition. I’ve kept them all.

Part of the reason is my father. He’s not someone that’s really into the movies or theatre, but he loves The Sound of Music. He saw it when it first came out and for some reason it just clicked with him. In fact, his first date with my mother was to the 1973 theatrical reissue, the last time the film was given a nationwide release. Twenty-three years later, we went to Salzburg, Austria to look at real locations from the Trapp family’s life, as well as those locations used in the film. We were inside the Nonnberg Abbey, visited the Mirabell Gardens (where the “Do-Re-Mi” finale was shot), plus two of the three houses used as exteriors as well as the actual Trapp villa (which is lovely). But I was also struck with the extraordinary beauty of the city; it is a place I really want to revisit again sooner rather than later.

To coincide with this celebratory DVD/Blu-Ray release, R&H and Fox have planned a series of events, including an entire episode of Oprah dedicated to the film, which will air on October 29 (check local listings!) My father asked when that was happening; I’m not even sure he knows who Oprah is. And I’m not being facetious but that’s the sort of pull this film has with him. However, the event that has me most excited is the upcoming theatrical re-release of the film. On October 19 & 26 (which are both Tuesdays) the film will be shown at 6:30PM. Click here to purchase tickets and to find the location nearest you.  It’s not very often that a classic film buff like myself gets the opportunity to see one of his favorites on the big screen. Just that itself is enough reason to rejoice. Ultimately the restored and remastered film will be released in both a Blu-Ray/DVD combo and a limited collector’s edition box set, as well a new reissue of the soundtrack on November 2.

Patricia Neway wins a Tony

Before the nationwide telecast of the Tony Awards, the awards used to be held in a hotel ballroom in the midtown area. Before Alexander Cohen turned it into the event it became, it was a simple affair and there were no performances. The ceremony was telecast locally in NY, and here is a quick sample of 1959’s winner for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Patricia Neway, accepting for the original production of The Sound of Music, in which she played the Mother Abbess.

Included after the Tony footage is a photo montage of Neway set to a live recording of the act one finale of The Sound of Music from 1960 (For the neophytes: she sings “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to dramatically bring down the curtain on act one). Enjoy: