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What NBC’s Reimagining of “The Sound of Music” Says About Modern Society

What NBC’s Reimagining of “The Sound of Music” Says About Modern Society

NBC/Nino Munoz

Kim Scharfenberger - published on 12/12/13

The producers said this version would be for "a new generation." So what exactly did this new generation see fit to change in a so-called timeless classic?

Last Thursday, NBC aired a live performance of the enduring classic, The Sound of Music starring country-singer Carrie Underwood as the willful novice turned governess and True Blood star Stephen Moyer as the aloof Captain von Trapp. Much of the project was met with anticipation mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism. As far as ingenuity goes, NBC took a risk on the prospect of a musical aired live with the potential of hiccups and malfunctions. The last live-aired musical was Cinderella in 1957. Additionally, many viewers would inevitably compare this version to the much-beloved 1965 film. However, the nostalgia of old-time live musicals succeeded in attracting quite a crowd and NBC’s The Sound of Music, Live! was a ratings success, drawing 18.6 million viewers.

In several TV spots, those involved in the production assured that they were “not trying to remake the  movie,” but were instead aiming to create “a Sound of Music for a new generation.” That being said, it’s clear that the NBC version made several interesting changes to character portrayal that the 1965 version widely differs from. Of course, some innovation is naturally expected in order to set this new version apart from the original. This is also keeping in mind that the NBC live version was drawing from the original 1959 script and not the 1965 film, which changed quite a few things. Still, the differences in character portrayal indicate a deeper divide between modern culture and the culture of yesteryear. After all, it’s a new generation—so what exactly did this new generation see fit to change in a so-called timeless classic?

Both Moyer’s Captain von Trapp and Underwood’s Maria brought distinctly different approaches to the table in their portrayals. They are both more emotionally expressive than past portrayals. Many will recall Christopher Plummer’s performance as the steely Captain, but even in the original stage production, von Trapp is cold and harsh, perhaps bordering on cruel. He is not exactly a sympathetic figure, especially as he runs his household like a military camp. Of course, Maria’s warmth and enthusiasm opens him up—but Moyer’s von Trapp didn’t seem to need that encouragement. He was decidedly more charming, especially in scenes where his affection for Maria was obvious. Moyer lacked the hardness found in past incarnations. In the last fifty years, society’s definition of manliness has changed quite a bit. As The Atlantic pointed out, not many have sympathy for “the gruff, archaic model of the patriarch” any longer and prefer more “touchy-feely” fathers. Moyer’s von Trapp seems to be a result of that mentality.

Many critics have already called out Carrie Underwood’s acting skills, and noted her obvious disadvantage of being an acclaimed country singer, but not a trained actress. Underwood’s acting aside, she gives an ultimately over-emotional portrayal of Maria, including quite a lot of weeping. Carrie Underwood probably represents the ideal “American sweetheart” for today’s modern society, but her overly saccharine approach to Maria seems to fall flat. A certain amount of reservation from a woman considering the convent makes more sense— but today’s policy of “wearing your heart on your sleeve” is generally more accepted as empathetic, and so Underwood was predictably over-expressive.

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Some of the children’s roles were altered to be more palatable for a modern audience as well. The romance between von Trapp’s eldest daughter, Leisl, and her telegram-delivering sweetheart Rolf is a charming example of innocent first love, made evident through the much-loved song “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” In the 1965 version, the most intimacy you’ll see is Rolf and Leisl’s quick kiss at the end of the song. The NBC reimagining provided a bit more overt flirtation between the two, including a scene where the two of them tumble down a hill entwined together. Certainly, standards for romance have changed and society has grown more free and expressive—but it’s still interesting to note that a modern audience seemingly required more obvious romantic gestures between Rolf and Leisl in order to convey their affection for one another.

The Mother Abbess was portrayed admirably by Audra McDonald, but it is interesting to note that she is quite young in comparison to the much older Peggy Wood from the 1965 version. And it’s not just the Mother Abbess’ age that has changed, but her relationship with Maria as well. In previous incarnations, the Mother Abbess retains an air of detachment, despite the fact that she cares for Maria. But this Mother Abbess was much more involved and expressive. A good example of this is the scene where Maria is arrayed in her wedding accouterments and requests to look at herself in a mirror. “You mustn’t be vain, Maria,” warns the Mother Abbess before taking the mirror so that the other sisters can look for Maria. But that air of intimidation and warning evaporates in the NBC version, wherein the Mother Abbess dissolves into a smile and giggles excitedly that Maria looks beautiful. Here, the Mother Abbess is not so much an authority figure or mentor as she is a friend to Maria. The warmth and friendliness of the Mother Abbess is not a negative thing by any means, but McDonald’s youthful approach is a far cry from the reserved detachment and quietly understated humor of the 1965 version’s Peggy Wood. This perhaps indicates an attempt on NBC’s part to put a fresher and younger face on religious organization, but that also indicates that they thought an older and more reserved approach would not garner the same amount of interest.

Pointing out all of these differences is not meant to imply that NBC’s The Sound of Music was a failure—on the contrary, their attempts at doing something “old-school” is highly commendable. Yet these character changes remain interesting to note as an example of how society has shifted its ideals and values. What makes a man or a woman sympathetic? How can this audience connect with these characters? Our understanding of these questions has shifted a great deal, if the NBC’s character adjustments are any indication.

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