The Good, The Live And The Ugly of Theatre On TV

December 4th, 2013 § 0 comments

Kirstie: tragedy tomorrow, travesty tonight

Kirstie: tragedy tomorrow, travesty tonight

Outside of the annual Tony Awards broadcast, theatre is not a subject frequently dealt with on national television. So the next six days might be one of the richest confluences of theatre-related programming in recent memory, with three separate programs with roots in the theatre coming through America’s cable boxes between now and Monday night.

That said, I must immediately dash any expectations that the first of these programs in any way proves of benefit to theatre in America. Premiering tonight on TV Land, the series Kirstie features Cheers alumnus Kirstie Alley as the veteran star of 14 Broadway plays who, in the first episode, is reunited with the now-adult son she gave up for adoption in his infancy. That the show is a poor excuse for a sitcom is beyond my declared expertise, so I’ll contain my comments to its representation of theatrical life.

Kirstie is a show that seems to have been made by people who have watched movies about the theatre, and their creative liberties have been magnified into absurdity. Alley’s character lives in an apartment that seems sprung from 30s or 40s plays like The Royal Family, Accent On Youth or Old Acquaintance. Her career supports a full time personal assistant as well as a driver; there’s a chef in the pilot but he has disappeared in the three subsequent episodes available for review. How many stage stars can manage that? Could she have family money that would explain the largesse? Perhaps. But there’s no excuse for her decision, in the final moments of the opening night performance of her newest play, to delay the final curtain by adding dialogue meant as a declaration of affection for her once-abandoned son. It is patently absurd.

It’s worth noting that the series’ creator, Marco Pennette, has exercised his love of theatre on TV before, albeit through a supporting character. On the late 90s sitcom Caroline in the City, Amy Pietz played an actress who was appearing in the musical Cats, late in its long Broadway run. This afforded many sly and knowing digs at tired Broadway musicals that may well have been lost on much of the audience, but which jollied along those of us who watched primarily for Malcolm Gets’ performance. Kirstie offers little that sly beyond naming Rhea Perlman’s personal assistant character Thelma, a nod to the role played by Thelma Ritter in All About Eve. The only saving grace is that after the first two episodes, Kirstie’s depiction of theatre seems to become a footnote in the series, although Kristin Chenoweth’s cameo as an Eve Harrington type in the second show carries a bit of welcome snap that elevates the leaden comedy as much as possible (there’s also a terrific guest shot by Cloris Leachman as Alley’s estranged mother). But, in short, Kirstie makes Smash look like a documentary.

sound of musicThe second offering is the much promoted live broadcast of The Sound of Music, with Carrie Underwood leading the cast as Maria. Because it will be done live, it’s impossible to make any judgments, though I’m sure the commentary will be flying fast and furious during and after the broadcast on social media; I have already seen critiques of the cast recording, which was being streamed by Spotify yesterday.

Unlike almost everyone in the country, apparently, I am one of the very few who has never seen The Sound of Music, so I’ll be able to take the broadcast on its own terms. Yes, you read that right: I’ve never seen the show on stage and I’ve only seen snippets of the film (specifically Julie Andrews’ opening mountaintop twirl, the “Do Re Mi” and “16 Going on 17” numbers, and the final sequence with Von Trapp singing Edelweiss and the family’s subsequent escape). But I’m very pleased that there will be a version of the stage show to sit alongside the film for posterity, allowing fans and musical theatre students to get a sense of how a show can be altered for its screen incarnation (it joins Rent in this category). While the NBC presentation will be a peculiar hybrid of TV and theatre (it’s being produced for TV as if it were a stage production, though it is a one night only event that will play in person only for technicians, sans audience and audience reactions), I suspect it will prompt me to see the movie at long last, to make my own comparisons.

Audra McDonald in Six By Sondheim

Audra McDonald in Six By Sondheim

Capping this trilogy, on Monday night, is the HBO documentary Six By Sondheim, directed by James Lapine and produced by (among others) former New York Times drama critic and lifelong musical theatre buff and expert Frank Rich. While the roughly 80 minute program makes the shrewd decision to focus musically on only six significant Sondheim songs, it casts a much wider net over the composer’s life and process than the title might suggest. It admirably features but a single talking head (in contrast to so many documentaries): that of Sondheim himself, drawn from a wide range of interviews over several decades. I was impressed to hear Sondheim, ever the wordsmith, drop “concatenate” and “serendipity” into a single sentence – no wonder this guy is the eminence grise of composer-lyricists, perhaps never to be equaled.

While his interrogators are mostly excised, there’s really something to be said for any show which manages to embrace moderators as diverse as Diane Sawyer, Tony Kushner and Mike Douglas and which squeezes in clips of performers like Cher and Patti LaBelle singing “Send In The Clowns” (LaBelle proves that, unlike Glynis Johns, she really knows how to hold a note). Another asset of the show is the newly produced performances of, among others, “I’m Still Here” (by Jarvis Cocker) and “Opening Doors” (with Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrara, Darren Criss, Laura Osnes and Sondheim himself as the producer seeking a “hummable melody”) which vary greatly in visual style thanks to contributions by different directors for each, most notably Todd Haynes.

A prized personal possession

A prized personal possession

As a big fan of Sondheim, but something short of a rabid one, the program certainly includes tales and tidbits I’d heard before, but packaged as elegantly as one could ask; I was certainly startled when the composer recommended liquor as an indispensable aid to writing a musical. Whatever one’s familiarity with Stephen Sondheim and his work, Six By Sondheim is a indispensable record that speeds by in a flash, and its presence on the dominant pay cable service puts other outlets like Ovation to shame. It would be naïve to expect a series of such programs from HBO, but Sondheim has many more memorable songs worth exploring; we can only hope that we may yet see more documentaries on his life and work as expert as this one, whatever the forum.

So gather around your viewing screen, set your DVR, or get ready to buy a couple of DVDs very shortly (definitely for Six By Sondheim; possibly for The Sound of Music). As for Kirstie, please stay away, so its travesty of theatre fails to make much of a mark anywhere. And, in the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in my daily prayer for season four of Slings and Arrows.

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