By Matthew Kennedy
The 5 December 2013 live broadcast of The Sound of Music became a ratings giant despite withering reviews from armchair critics everywhere. “Hate watchers” Twittered their derision with relish, while NBC laughed all the way to the bank. What was the draw? Country singing sensation Carrie Underwood as Maria? The inexhaustible popularity of Music? The fact it was live? All three? Something else?
In being attack-proof, it strongly evoked the past. The cherished 1965 film was greeted similarly in its day. Critics then held their noses while it became the biggest moneymaker in film history. The similarities don’t end there, for NBC is planning another new production of an old musical for holiday time 2014. “I think we can do this again — and again and again,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt told The New York Times. “There may be a little bit of a phenomenon to the first one of these. Who knows what happens Year 2, 3, or 4?”
The network would be well advised to revisit what happened to musicals after the film industry went searching for the next Sound of Music in the late 1960s. The results were not pretty. In fact, they nearly bankrupted the American film industry. The stakes are not as high this time, but history need not repeat itself. NBC has a rare opportunity to reestablish the classic American book musical as a widely enjoyed and broadly shared cultural experience.
Let’s open the piano bench and see what’s there. Below, in no order, is a list of ten possible follow-ups to The Sound of Music:
1. The Music Man – The ultimate in Americana cornball fun, this musical is filled with fiendishly clever, hummable tunes while imparting a powerful message of love, community, and redemption. Just try to keep your eyes dry as little Winthrop finds his voice.
2. My Fair Lady – The flagship of the Lerner and Loewe fleet is much more interior than The Sound of Music, rendering it well suited for a television sound stage. There’s that tricky ending in defiance of source George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that might not settle as well as it did when MFL premiered in 1956. Perhaps this time Henry Higgins doesn’t have to be such an S.O.B.
3. Show Boat – Like The Music Man, Show Boat is a big thick slice of the US of A. Given it’s almost 90 years old, the mature storytelling and unblinking look at miscegenation may surprise. And then there are those evergreen songs – “Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The magnificent but oft-excised choral number “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” makes a stunning revelation.
4. South Pacific – A gifted production designer could have fun reimagining tropical Eden for “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Ha’i.” The 2008 New York revival kept the strains of racism found in the 1948 original, rendering it both historic and timely. Why not do likewise for television and incite chat room buzzing?
5. Guys and Dolls – This show has a great diamond-hard shell and a driving New York pulse to it. The love stories are brash, the characters are colorful and sassy, and the Frank Loesser songs (“Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “Guys and Dolls,” and more) just can’t be beat.
6. Camelot – The film adaptation blew the simple triangular love story all out of proportion. This could be a worthwhile study of good intentions gone horribly wrong. Confront the fatal flaws of Lancelot and Arthur, and sex up Guenevere. Make her a plausible agent in the toppling of a great social experiment.
7. Funny Girl – Perfect for a new belter of the Streisand mold who already has a television following, say Megan Hilty (Smash) or Lea Michele (Glee). Folks would tune in to play the comparison game much as they did for The Sound of Music. Anyone who dares interpret “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People” on her own terms has guts.
8. Man of La Mancha – The somewhat forgotten La Mancha needs great show voices to breathe life into its challenging score. Perhaps an intimate television production could approximate the reported magic of its original stage production.
9. West Side Story – Does a remounting of West Side Story need any justification? Okay, here’s one. As good as the 1961 film is, there is an opportunity to fix a few of its deficiencies, such as rampant dubbing and white singer-dancers in brown face.
10. Mame – If Funny Girl showcases a new female talent, Mame showcases a mature one. Its messages of “life is a banquet” and “open a new window” never go out of style, and the rousing “We Need a Little Christmas” lifts the spirits as it fits the season.
Below is a playlist of assorted songs from these musicals.
Matthew Kennedy is a writer, film historian, and anthropologist. His books include three biographies of classic Hollywood figures: Marie Dressler, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, and Joan Blondell. He is author of Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. He lives in San Francisco.