Sunday, December 8, 2013

Friday Dance Party: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Through The Alps

It's too early to call the coroner, even with the deadly comments regarding The Sound of Music Live.  This kind of event programming may have been bloodied by those reactions (and the show itself marred by two pretty stiff performances), but Live Television seems to be back.
Well, the public has spoken.  Despite universally negative reviews and a particularly virulent explosion on social media, the Public At Large loved this week's live broadcast of The Sound of Music
The power, and dread, of social media can be
daunting. Bette Midler had Broadway success
in a recent solo play, but when asked if she
would consider returning in a big musical
(both Dolly and Mame have been mentioned),
she revealed she could not handle the
onslaught of snark she would have to endure
on Twitter and Facebook.

It broke some substantial ratings records, and even that 19-35 demo which advertisers are so inclined to drool over watched the show.  Was it any good?  Well, many people thought it was an absolute abomination, with no redeeming features;  those folks have an elitist sensibility, I think, and cannot help but compare the broadcast to the film version, which has gained iconic status over the years.  Better not mess with Julie Andrews.
It's Apples and Oranges. Or at least, Apples and Applesauce, comparing the stage version to the film.  Underwood was in a no-win situation with theatrical types, who have pounded her performance into the ground. No, she wasn't much good (though she sounded fine in her numbers), but it was her participation which made the project happen.  It is no surprise to me that she brought in big ratings;  after all, before she became a country star, she was first and foremost a product of television.  Millions watched her weekly as she rose to win American Idol; it can be legitimately argued that her career was actually CREATED by TV viewers.  Why wouldn't they support her?
I'll confess that some of the show bored me (as any and all stage productions of The Sound of Music have always done), but there were many reasons to stick with it. 

Five time Tony winner Audra McDonald doesn't need another award, but she's gonna get one, come Emmy time.
Everybody seems to agree that Audra McDonald emerged from the project unscathed (look for an Emmy nomination there), and I think Christian Borle as Max and particularly Laura Benanti as Elsa were also worth watching. 
No one complained about stage vets
Laura Benanti and Christian Borle.

I mentioned on Facebook that I was very glad this project got off the ground, as it will now preserve the original stage show for posterity.  Yes, maybe we'd all prefer that the leading role had not been attempted by country singer Carrie Underwood, but you know what?  I give her big props for stepping out of her comfort zone and attempting something new;  the fact that that attempt occurred in front of 18.5 million people makes it even more courageous. 
Underwood's decision to tackle this
project displays courage, not hubris.

And those who insist the role should have been played by an actress with legit stage cred, well, the project may have been better but most likely would not have been made.  The economics of producing this gigantic musical (I've read the total budget exceeded 9 million dollars) required some bold thinking, and there is not a stage performer on the planet who would have enticed 18 and a half million people to their television.
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are responsible for what critics thought was a trainwreck.  They also shepherded Hairspray to the big screen and earned the Best Picture Oscar for Chicago.  Their stage-to-small screen efforts include Bette Midler's Gypsy, Matthew Broderick's Music Man, and the Kathy Bates/Alan Cumming Annie.  Their racially diverse version of Cinderella included Whitney Houston and Bernadette Peters;  they remain committed to the preservation of the American musical.
So, despite a critical drubbing, there's money in those ratings numbers, and I have little doubt that another such event will eventually occur.  I love the idea of revisiting classic musicals;  producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron agree, as they are responsible for a number of stage-to-screen transfers. 
Yes, please, let's have a Mame, but one on film rather than
live.  Christine Baranski and Harriet Harris as Mame and Vera
are perfect, and as the mousy Gooch? Kristin Chenoweth
would tear it up.

I know Mame remains on their radar, though I hope they will eventually produce a TV remake on film, rather than a live performance.  No, I think the next live musical should be a slightly  smaller one, which could take place on an actual stage, in front of an actual audience. 
One of the complaints I heard regarding The Sound of Music was the fact that there was no audience, but really, how could there have been?  The producers took over an entire sound stage in Long Island in order to create what were pretty substantial sets.  To produce the show on a stage would necessarily shrink the production, which would not have been wise this first time out.  I enjoyed the look of the production, though others complained it looked like a soap opera.  The TV direction here was problematic:  there's no one around anymore who knows how to direct this kind of thing. Too bad Ralph Nelson isn't still here; he's the guy who brought the original Cinderella to  live TV (Go here for that Dance Party).
But next time, why not place the show in front of an audience?  I have a number of suggestions, but by far the one which I think would be the most appreciated is this one:
This film adaptation was a disaster.  The Sondheim score, one of his early gems, was largely dropped, and the charm of the show was surgically removed as well.  The piece is very theatrical, with an opening number which explains exactly that.  It's a single set, a smallish cast, and perfect for a live TV presentation with an audience present. 
Nathan Lane won the Tony for the most
recent Broadway revival, and I would
certainly place him in the leading role for TV.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum cries out to be archived in a version true to its original production.  Its fame does not come near that of The Sound of Music, so the cast should be peopled with actors with lots of recognition, but with musical comedy chops as well.  Nathan Lane has a national presence and must play the lead; I would surround him with a few folks with even bigger name recognition. 
Paging Robin Williams.  No, that's not Tevye, though he'd be a great one, but I suggest him to play Senex, the henpecked and randy father in Forum.  His vocal performance in the animated Aladdin proved he can sing (though the vocal requirements made of Senex are minimal).
Robin Williams would be perfectly cast as Senex, and would not be thrown by a live audience nor a live camera.  And as his domineering wife, Domina?
Kathy Bates belted the hell out of
Miss Hannigan in Annie, and would be
swell as the battle ax who inspired the
classic line, "Never fall in love during
a total eclipse."

Why, Bette Midler of course.  But as stated above, the Divine Miss M is hesitant to subject herself to Social Media Snark, so Kathy Bates will do just fine. 
Jesse Tyler Ferguson earns Emmy nods
for Modern Family, but has stage creds
from On The Town to Putnam County
Spelling Bee. He should shave his
current beard and play Hysterium.

Marcus Lycus, the procurer who lives next door, would be great fun for my favorite Christian Borle, and as the ancient Erronius, I'd invite one of our elder comic statesmen, perhaps Carl Reiner or even Mel Brooks.
Who's this guy?  Why, he's our Hero, of course.  Matthew James Thomas is currently playing Pippin on Broadway, a performance I have seen (and described here).  He would be a sweetly goofy Hero in Forum.
I'd turn to Broadway to cast the young lovers: Matthew James Thomas, Broadway's current Pippin, would be great as Hero, and there are any number of funny ingenues in New York right now who could handle Philia (or perhaps there's a likely candidate over on the Disney Channel).
"I AM A PARADE!" And Cheyenne Jackson
will be too, as pompous, vain, and gullible
Miles Gloriosus.

I know I'm daydreaming, as Forum certainly does not have the fame of The Sound of Music, but its relatively small cast and single set requirement would make it a great show to be broadcast live in front of an audience.  And if some of those well known names are attached, it could bring in some substantial numbers.

Perhaps those numbers won't match The Sound of Music's;  there was certainly a curiosity factor with this week's live event which may dissipate with the next one. 
Maybe Capt. von Trapp should have had a
beach scene. This guy's performance was
the real disappointment.

And it cannot be denied that, though Carrie Underwood's performance disappointed almost everyone, her name recognition is through the roof, having worked her way up the American Idol ladder in front of millions of viewers week after week. 
Nobody expected Underwood to wow us, but Stephen Moyer was expected to be good.  His performance was the big letdown, as far as I'm concerned.  I've never seen nor heard of him, he's from True Blood, and I haven't watched Vampire TV since Dark Shadows.  Apparently he has some musical cred, as he was in a concert staging of Chicago, but if this performance was any indication, his Billy Flynn must have Belly Flopped.
There can really only be one source for this week's Dance Party, and I've chosen one of the weaker songs in the score.  I am very pleased that the roles of Max and Elsa, which were severely reduced in the film version, can now be seen as the true supporting leads they are.  Both their songs were presented on Thursday, and were brand new to viewers who are only familiar with the film's soundtrack. 
The decision to remove the two songs sung by Max and Elsa for the film was probably a good one, but I'm glad to see them back.
Let's face it, neither tune is particularly memorable, nor do they stand up to the rest of the score, which is filled with songs you can't get out of your head.  The perky rhythm of "No Way To Stop It" belies its theme, which is, after all, appeasement of the Nazis for personal, selfish reasons.  But we get a nice glimpse of Borle and Benanti here, with Benanti particularly impressive.  Let's hope, this time next year, the Dance Party will be presenting "Comedy Tonight!"