In Defense of Carrie Underwood

The problems with 'Sound of Music Live' weren't entirely her fault.

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Will Hart / NBC

Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Carrie Underwood as Maria

While the great majority of the 18.5 million viewers who watched last evening’s broadcast of  The Sound of Music Live on NBC tuned in for some good old family-friendly musical theater, another strong (and vocal) contingent had very different motives: Hate watching. Particularly, hate-watching the polarizing casting choice of country star Carrie Underwood in the lead role made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1965 movie.

The American Idol winner recently told Entertainment Weekly that she has been getting a lot of “hate tweets” for taking on the iconic role (” I would never pretend that I was [Julie Andrews] … I know my place,” she said). There was a proliferation of #snarkofmusic tweets  — many of them discussing the same overarching theme:

But is she really deserving of such vitriol?

I’m going to be the first to admit that I wasn’t too happy to hear that Underwood was cast as Maria. She wasn’t my first (or second, or third, or fourth…) choice, and after seeing the show, my opinion hasn’t changed. Like The Hollywood ReporterVariety,and AP reviews, I think that while she has a good voice (and didn’t have twang that I had feared), Underwood simply didn’t have the acting chops. AP went so far as to state that not only did she lack chemistry but, “Deer in headlights have emoted more.”

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But is the lackluster performance really Carrie Underwood’s fault? Or rather, was she put in a situation where she was set up to be hated on — and, in some respects, to fail?

NBC needed a big name star to bankroll this $9 million endeavor. So while a Broadway star like Kelli O’Hara or Sutton Foster would have almost definitely given a more polished performance, would they have have secured what must have been a massive sponsorship by Walmart?

And so producers went to Carrie Underwood, a country star the people like so much they once voted her to be an American Idol winner. A further testament to her likability, Underwood didn’t fade after her win but went on to have a successful career that included a gig hosting the CMAs.

While Underwood’s country-music success is undeniable, it probably didn’t play to the tastes of the uber-vocal musical theaterati. Loud snark leading up to the show was inevitable.

On top of the massive stylistic leap from country to Broadway, which Underwood handled well, there was one major factor working against the singer: the woman is not an actress. Underwood was cast to take on one of Hollywood’s most iconic roles, in which the (quite literally) pitch-perfect Julie Andrews will always be imprinted on our minds. That task would be daunting even to a stage or film veteran.

And although a Broadway great probably couldn’t bankroll the project as Maria, they were available for hire for other parts. So inexperienced Underwood was placed opposite Tony winners like Audra Mcdonald and Laura Benanti. Close-up shots did not help hide their varying levels of mastery.

The nature of the show also didn’t do Underwood any favors.

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A better environment for a green actress would allow for reshoots and on-the-spot directing. The Sound of Music Live was, well, live. And although Underwood is a talented live performer, one crucial ingredient that makes for an infectious show was missing: an audience. There were no roars of applause or laughs to feed off of — the actors were thrust into a dead space to perform a Broadway show that was presented as a television event. Oy.

So did I love Underwood’s performance? No. But do I blame her? Not really.

Under these circumstances hate was inevitable.

Of course the descendants of the von Trapp family told ABC News that they had wished producers had picked a more seasoned actress.

“[Our family has] had the conversations of who could play this role better and it was Anne Hathaway, for example,” Myles von Trapp Derbyshire, great grandson of Maria von Trapp, said. “Here’s someone who just won an Oscar for a similar situation [in Les Miserables]. She was able to act and sing.”

Because God only knows Anne Hathaway wouldn’t have received any hate tweets.