Back in the dark ages when I was a working actress performing in musicals, I remember being shocked at the discovery that there were people out there in parts of the United States, who had never been to the theatre…ever. I realize now that I was living in a bubble. I just did not understand how or why anyone could reach adulthood without having enjoyed the theatre experience, and even less comprehensible was the realization that for many people, missing out was not a big deal.
So When NBC decided to broadcast live performances of classic pieces of American Musical Theatre, I was thrilled about what that might mean to people who don’t have easy access to live theatre, but I also approached the idea with some trepidation. I was concerned that Carrie Underwood playing Maria was going to be a disaster, but was comforted by the knowledge that their broadcast of The Sound of Music also had the brilliant Broadway icon, Audra McDonald playing the Mother Abbess.
Most Americans are familiar with the movie with Julie Andrews, but many people, it seemed, were unaware that the show was written for Mary Martin. Since they presented the show as it was written for the Broadway stage (not the revised movie edition) there were a lot of angry viewers out there who thought NBC had re-written the show to suit Underwood. Some people were disturbed by what they viewed as the unrealistic notion that a black woman could be in charge of a convent in prewar Austria; as if that was somehow pertinent to the plot. Overall, I enjoyed this production. And since my theatrical debut was playing Maria in my high school production of this show, it has a special place in my heart, so I was at least emotionally obliged to give it a thumbs up.
The second offering of Peter Pan was a huge disappointment. Broadway fixtures, Kelly O’Hara and Christian Borle were, as per usual, superb, but Christopher Walken’s Captain Hook was a disaster, despite his years as a professional dancer and his confessed love of musical theatre. He seemed to mark his way through the show while quite obviously reading cue cards. And frankly, the less said about Allison Williams as Peter, the better.
After that debacle, I was worried that NBC would abandon the project, but I am happy to say, they did not. Tonight (12/03/15) NBC will air a live broadcast of The Wiz, with an all-star cast that includes Queen Latifa as the Wiz. Stephanie Mills (who I saw in the original cast playing Dorothy back in the 70s) will play Auntie Em. Yale Drama School alum, David Alan Grier will play the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are played by Elijah Kelley and Ne-Yo. Newcomer Shanice Williams will ease on down the road as Dorothy, Mary K Blige is the Wicked Witch, while Glinda is played by, Orange is the New Black actress, Uzo Aduba.
Tony Award winning Kenny Leon directs the production, which was originally directed on Broadway by Geoffrey Holder.
Have a look at the making of the Wiz, which originally aired on NBC on November 25th, and is available on Demand through most cable or satellite services. It was directed by Mary Murphy. Mary is an old friend of mine from my singing days on Nantucket.(Mary also directed the highly regarded documentary on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, Hey, Boo, which is available on Netflix.) I defy you to watch this documentary and NOT cry when Shanice Williams is told she got the part.
(NBC is not the first network to broadcast a live Broadway musical. Check out Julie Andrews in the 1957 CBS broadcast of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Julie Andrews rehearsed and performed this WHILE she was performing in My Fair Lady on Broadway. It was performed in a Broadway theatre, not a studio, and there are a few glitches, which just adds to the nail biting aspect of walking this kind of tight rope. You can find scenes from it on You Tube, and the full production is available through Amazon.com)