Many of you will have watched last evening’s Sound of Music on NBC starring Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti.
Regardless of how you feel about the movie with Julie Andrews or the original play with Mary Martin, this production was a big deal, drawing 18 million viewers, making NBC very very happy. It matters not a bit how the production was perceived by the critics, as the only thing NBC was looking to discover was “who would watch”. Given these numbers it will be considered a “smash hit” by the TV Execs and that’s all they care about.
The artistic quality, of course, is something very different to discuss and it can be argued both ways – that it was an artistic achievement of quality or that it was artistically a disaster of rather big proportions. There were plenty of both of these opinions on the blog-o-sphere. Carrie Underwood is a very good belter, but she can only belt. No one seemed to care much about that, but I certainly did.
Belting as a vocal quality is loud, especially above A440. This quality arises out of powerful energy associated with passion, drama, declaration, and intensity. It can also be frightened or angry. It isn’t generally associated with tenderness, refinement, dignity, old-fashioned femininity, intimacy or purity. Hmmmmm.
We are enured to loud singing. It no longer represents “human” qualities, it represents loud singing for its own sake, as an end it itself. It no longer has any qualities associated with it, although “in real life” those qualities still exist, and it doesn’t carry any impact insofar as the volume because everything is controlled by the engineers. If the sound is loud, it can be softened, and if its soft, they can make it louder.
What the technical people cannot do is make the vocal quality be different. Only the vocalist can do that. There were a few times last night when Ms. Underwood sang in what would have had to have been called a head register quality so it theoretically exists, but she did not use it where it would have been expected. Instead, Maria became a belty little thing, brassy and bold like a cowgirl from Oklahoma mostly sans the accent.
The people who surrounded her, especially Ms. McDonald and Ms Benanti, who can sing in ANY vocal quality, were far superior in both acting and singing to Ms. Underwood, but sadly, they are nowhere near as popular or well known. Even Ms. McDonald, who has been on TV, is mostly known only to Broadway audiences/fans. An artist of her calibre, or of Ms. Benanti’s, standing alongside a newcomer who is making her debut in front of 18 million people, live, has to be both secure and kind hearted. They made Ms. Underwood look bad simply by being so experienced and professional. No one cared. Mr. Moyer was there, too, and he was OK, his singing was acceptable. The music he sings doesn’t ask for much, but he sounded the way many of them typically do. No obvious changes. (How about Michael Bolton as von Trapp?)
Mark my words, we have heard the very last of “legit” sounds for all Marias to come, particularly in a big, serious production. This TV show will change Maria forever into a belty role and the show will go on, in both forms perhaps (TV version and live theatrical show) to find new fans. The lack of appreciation in the general public for a well trained voice will continue to decline overall due to the lack of music education in school. Audiences just don’t know the difference. In fact, in ALL of the reviews and comments, absolutely no one mentioned this belting difference. It was of no importance to anyone, and that is a loss.
Maria wasn’t a washer-woman. She was not Ado Annie. She was sweet, naive and perhaps innocent. She was devout enough to want to enter a convent where her belting would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Oops. Not important, not anymore. Too bad. Why was this ignored, aside from the above reasons?
Go back and take a look at what I wrote here two summers ago about “Annie Get Your Gun” at Glimmerglass, starring opera diva Deborah Voigt. Equally bad casting in reverse. Ms. Underwood would have made a fabulous Annie Oakley and maybe Ms. Voigt might have been a decent (if slightly older) Maria. She was able to get her voice to be lighter, but she just couldn’t belt and Annie was written for the quintessential belter, Ethel Merman. A country bumpkin in buckskins. Made sense that she was singing in that sound.
Quite some time ago, Donna Murphy played Anna in the last revival on Broadway of “The King and I” with Lou Diamond Phillips. Her acting was wonderful but her singing was beyond dreadful. (She has gotten better). She talk-belted her way through the entire role a quarter tone flat. It was truly awful. Again, Mrs. Anna was made to sound like a washer-woman. Given that she was a highly educated, dignified school teacher in that period of time, she would have sounded very different than someone from the lower social classes. Mr. Rodgers knew that and wrote music for the role which was expected to sound cultured and refined.
It kills the character to use the wrong vocal quality, but the people involved don’t care or don’t know (which is worse to contemplate). Why, actually, would they change a well-known role such that it makes it hard to accept the actor’s choices, no matter how strong they are?
It’s called PROFITS. It’s called “prime audience segment” (18 to 49 year olds). It’s called the Sound of Money. Ka-ching.