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How Do You Fill the Shoes of Julie Andrews? Simple: You Can't

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | December 5, 2013 |

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | December 5, 2013 |

While homophobes were busy huffing and puffing at the cast of “Kinky Boots” performing during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last week, I was preoccupied with snarling every time I saw a promo for NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! Even my father was confused at my grumblings as we watched the parade. I couldn’t and still can’t help it — my lips involuntarily curl whenever I see spots for what may turn out to be an OK production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical but what, ever since it was first announced, has only felt like a bastardization of a story I love. I bear no ill will toward pop country singer Carrie Underwood, the star of the production airing live at 8/7PM CST tonight, and I even welcome the appearance of a musical production to primetime TV. Chances are slim she or it will win over me or most of my friends, and there’s a simple explanation for why the deck is stacked against Underwood and company — why people like me feel such a possessiveness for the show. And that reason is Dame Julie Andrews.

When I posted a link to the Trying Too Hard first look trailer for the show (above) on Facebook a few weeks ago, wondering who my generation’s Julie Andrews is (hint: not Underwood), a friend of mine said it best: “Julie Andrews is EVERY GENERATION’S JULIE ANDREWS. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m right. And I want to set this whole thing on fire because it’s just so wrong.” Indeed, Andrews is timeless, as is her role incarnation of Maria von Trapp. She didn’t originate the part; that was Mary Martin, whom I more closely associate with “South Pacific” and “Peter Pan,” in 1959 on Broadway. But the 1965 film adaptation starring Andrews and Christopher Plummer is the version everyone knows, and through it, Andrews claimed the role as her own. An actress can’t not be compared to her, even if it’s unfair. And it is. Andrews is an international treasure. If springtime, or flowers, or sunshine, or, I don’t know, goodness itself had a voice, it would be the voice of Julie Andrews. Hers is a talent that appears effortless. The power-balladness of Underwood’s feels more forced.

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“It’s safe to say that when I was little, my goal was to grow up to become Julie Andrews,” I told my mother a few months ago, apropos of probably me listening to The Sound of Music’s original soundtrack. “You wanted to be Julie Andrews as Maria — they aren’t the same person,” she countered. Heresy! … OK, she’s got a point. But hear me out! Andrews is one of those celebrities whom it is impossible to separate from the roles that made the famous. How could she, the woman, be anything other than practically perfect in every way? She has even been gracious about this production. She could murder someone and I’d think, “Meh, I’m sure she had her reasons. The victim was probably a Nazi — I bet it was Rolf. Make the queen give her another title.”

Maria the character is similarly grand, the embodiment of kindness and an example I looked up to as a child, just as my mother did. Several decades separate the points at which we each first saw the film, but thanks to technology and the family’s trusty videocassette recorder, I watched and rewatched a taped-off-TV recording of the movie so many times — knowing exactly when the commercial breaks would hit, and which commercials they’d be, and not knowing I was missing edited-out-for-time scenes about that whole impending war thing, and not understanding the point behind the song “Something Good” — that my parents at one point hid the VHS tape from me. “The Lonely Goatherd” on repeat didn’t thrill them the way it did me. That connectivity — having a movie at my fingertips — defines so much about us Millennials and generations near us, and why nostalgia runs deep in our veins and on the pages of sites such as Buzzfeed. Andrews have fans of all ages, and many have seen The Sound of Music a time or two. But people like me, we grew up watching it, over and over. Substitute The Sound of Music for whatever one’s particular jam was growing up and you’ll get similarly strong reactions — another Facebook comment on the trailer: “The pictures of Underwood in her draggy makeup mask make me want to punch the nearest person just so I can be sure that SOMEONE PAYS FOR THIS WRONG.” — from them when that piece of beloved media is reimagined in a much less imaginative way.

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As seen in the first look trailer, the actors of the live production have taken great pains to claim it isn’t a remake of the movie. I’m sure that’s true; the musical does, after all, stand on its own as a stage production, and a new version of the show is hardly a crime. What concerns me about the production is whether it will play out like a story or more like a concert. Musicals aren’t easy. They have to walk a careful line to maintain believability, and while it is hard to nail down that certain ingredient that makes a successful show, the best way recipe involves the actors taking the act of breaking out into song and dance numbers seriously. That’s what Andrews did. Andrews as Maria is so genuine, knocking out of the park lines and physical reactions that can so easily be hammed up. Even the way she sits on that ridiculous pinecone at the dinner table is endearing. You’ve got to be better than the wide-eyed and gee-golly-goshness we’ve seen in promos for the live production. Only the backdrop of Austrian mountains is faker.

I’m sure The Sound of Music Live!, also starring Stephen Moyer, Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, will be pleasant to look at and to listen to. Early reports of the music from fellow Pajibians describe it as “too pretty” — too polished. Makes sense that in their zeal for a holiday-time hit, NBC executives have amped up a production that is at its heart is a story about the simplicity and universality of music. How could you overproduce someone like Maria? Oh well. Underwood can have her moment, but I’ll be busy thinking about her irreplaceable predecessor. Perhaps I’ll track down my DVD copy of the 1965 film, which replaced the worn-out VHS tape years ago. That’s the beauty of it all: No matter what, Andrews is and always will be my Maria. I just have to press Play.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter. And know this, NBC: If you somehow botch the Ländler number, one of her favorite movie scenes of all time, she will be forced to riot.

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