Yodel-ay-Hee . . . Hooey!

Audra McDonald and Carrie Underwood

Audra McDonald and Carrie Underwood as God’s Creatures, Great and Small (respectively).


I recorded “The Sound of Music Live!” last night while I was at the theatre. A few quick thoughts.

Before: Why is everyone saying such mean things about Carrie Underwood? How bad can she be?
After: Oh, I see . . . Never mind.

Unhappily, Carrie Underwood is fully as bad as the critics said. But I think the much-repeated criticism that she’s like an automaton, that she’s not emotionally connected, is unjust. What’s wrong with her performance comes not from any lack of earnestness, but a total lack of technique. It seems clear to me that she means every word she says, but she has neither the imagination nor the chops to make her emotional life interesting. Carrie acts the way she sings: she doesn’t make music; she hits notes, emits tones. She’s earnest and committed, but there’s no fire or excitement in her; her most brilliant smile is utterly humorless. The dainty tears that dance on her cheeks while Audra McDonald sings are the most affecting thing in her entire performance, and they’re a perfect example of the sort of bad acting choices she makes from her very first scene “till (as my grandmother used to say) the last dog dies.” The song isn’t intended to move Maria in the same way it’s supposed to move us: it’s there to give her the confidence she needs to face the world — the actress should let us see Maria’s new-found resolve take hold of her as the words begin to have their effect: snivelling is the last thing she should be doing. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” jerks our tears (maybe), but it dries hers. Carrie’s tears are genuine and I think it’s because Audra’s performance simply overwhelms her, astonishes her to the deepest recesses of her shallowness; she receives the song as a wonder-stricken audience, not as Maria. She can’t help it. No experience and no technique.

Now I am filled with admiration for the easy grace of Julie Andrews’ performance, which I’d always taken for granted. It’s amazing how skillfully she handled that incredibly difficult material. Andrews is so deft that she makes the stilted chatter sound perfectly natural. She makes it all look so effortless; Carrie makes it look impossibly difficult.

As for Audra, she speaks the dialogue as exquisitely as she sings the lyrics. To see and hear her next to Carrie Underwood is very poignant. Audra is quite amazingly beautiful — her huge expressive features, her tremendous warmth and her soulfulness make her an irresistibly magnetic and enlivening presence. And there’s dinky little Carrie with her pipsqueak prettiness trembling in Audra’s majestic radiance, and getting punier by the minute. When the piffling little tears begin to dribble from Carrie’s itty bitty eyes, I can’t help thinking: “Malibu Barbie Meets the Life Force.”

As for the musical itself, I think Walter Kerr had it exactly right when he reviewed the original production: “Before The Sound of Music is halfway through its promising chores it becomes not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music.” Or, to put it another way: Yeeesh, what a lousy fucking show! I’d forgotten how coarse it is. I shall be watching it often. Parts of it. It has all the makings of a scornful pleasure.

And remember, folks: If Carrie Underwood married Jack Oakie, she’d be karaoke.

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