Carrie Underwood takes on Julie Andrews? What are they talking about?

I don’t know Carrie Underwood, the brand. I don’t listen to country music (only because I never think to) nor do I follow American Idol. I do know that some of those Idol winners and losers (if you can call Jennifer Hudson a “loser”) have gone on to good and diverse careers.

So I swore I wouldn’t watch The Sound of Music Live!, especially with someone I don’t know as the lead. Apparently, I’m the only one in America who doesn’t know Carrie Underwood.  But my real reason for not wanting to watch it is that I am full to the brim with The Sound of Music overload. I cannot bear to see it one more time.

It would have been my loss.

I came to my senses at the last minute when I found out that the incomparable Audra McDonald was in it and she, alone, is worth watching and listening to. It also featured other theatre actors and singers:  the beautiful and expressive Laura Benanti and Christian Borle who turned Max into a force to be reckoned with.

But Carrie Underwood as Maria?

I watched. Then I read reviews and snarky comments on Facebook. Then I realized I was in a completely different place about what I saw.

I LIKED Carrie Underwood. Only person in America, apparently. Here’s why and here’s what I saw.

With Audra McDonald to open the show and that most excellent women’s (nun’s) choir, that warm, candle-lit monastic set, I knew I was in for a very different experience.

But from her first appearance, I knew Underwood didn’t have the acting chops for this gig, but I liked her immediately, especially with McDonald, who generously brought her into the scene. And when she sang, I knew there was something going on worth watching.  I was expecting a country singer trying her best to hide the twang, but she was singing straight on. Maybe too straight on if you want to quibble, but she sounded like she had worked hard with a voice coach to get it right. And she did. My only problem was that it sounded flawless (pre-recorded?) and that there were so little dynamics. Like I said: she was singing straight on, full voice.

She went through all her scenes giving it her best and I liked her for working hard enough not to be terrible, even though terrible was what I expected. Instead, I got a sincerity about what she was doing that I found likeable an endearing, even a tad feisty, and isn’t that what Maria is? A sweet girl, if somewhat rough around the edges?

I expected to read reviews that would call her acting a little wooden. I wasn’t expecting the amount of vitriol being thrown around the cyber world because Underwood dared, DARED! to usurp what the misbegotten think of as Julie Andrews’ role.

Like, what? We should retire the role the way beloved sports heroes’ numbers are retired? Please.

You can’t talk about Carrie Underwood and Julie Andrews in the same sentence, but I have to wonder why you would even want to. This is the theatre: open-minded; idea-driven; heck it’s Art. Move on, People!

“But she (Underwood) isn’t Julie Andrews!” you still protest. “But, Dearie,” I reply, “Who is?” and I, for one actually enjoyed a little fresh air thrown into that role and into that old chestnut of a musical. Something new. Something surprising. Doing it with this cast, staged on gorgeous and expressive sets and lighted beautifully, was something new and with Carrie Underwood, it was also something surprising.

Julie Andrews doesn’t own the role. I would bet she doesn’t even want to. Why should any one actor “own” the role of Maria? If America’s musical theatre were to retire roles, I never would have seen the great Patti LuPone as Rose in Gypsy, which was a highlight of my theatre-going life. Ethel Merman owned that role, but face it. There are others equally worthy, and LuPone is one of many greats who did the part each in her own way. I give this to Underwood. She may not have owned the part, but she gave it a new, hardworking sincerity.

Maria is a good role for Carrrie Underwood to start out in musical theatre with. The Sound of Music is based on a story about a woman and a family we can relate to. The music and lyrics are some of the best in the musical theatre business. The role has a built-in likeableness. Maria has spirit, wants to do the right thing and does, is smart, funny, tender, and usually nice-looking. This role is a very good place to start building a musical theatre career. Underwood got to do her first major musical role with a part that is completely sympathetic and, unless she played Maria as a Nazi sympathizer, she should have to have some success with the audience.

I picked up on her sincerity: she didn’t walk through this. She wanted to do well with Maria and so I want her to do well in future roles, if she has the fortitude, after the Nasty Cyber People move on to their next victim, to take on other musical roles. It would be so interesting to see what she’d do next and what improvements she makes, how she builds on this experience, and to watch how she develops as an actor.  That has to be the coach in me. I want to see everyone reach their potential – their potential, not Julie Andrews’ potential.

Others saw “she can’t act worth a damned.” I saw a work in progress. I believe each performance is based on what the individual and the surrounding collaborators bring to it. Each performance is its own reward. Julie Andrews might agree.

I liked her. No, she’s not Julie Andrews’ equal, but that wasn’t her job, to be anyone’s equal. She did her job and I’d like to see what she does next.

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