The conversations about the film adaptation of the play August: Osage County and the live television broadcast of the musical The Sound of Music have not been kind. But the snark and the brawls have provoked some intriguing questions—about the transition of a work from stage to screen and vice-versa, and the changes in theater’s place in the culture.
1. What does it say that the biggest “theater” stories at the end of 2013 were about a TV show and a movie? Has the definition of theater changed? Can you call it theater if you’re not breathing the same air as the actors?
2. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music for the stage; it debuted on Broadway in 1959 starring Mary Martin. A year earlier, however, they created another musical specifically for live television: Cinderella. The current Cinderella at the Broadway Theatre marks the Broadway debut of that televised musical. The NBC broadcast of Sound of Music was a return to a tradition that lay dormant for half a century.
Clearly, the conventions and traditions of theater used to influence television. Nowadays, it seems largely the other way around, as I pointed out in 8 Ways Television Is Influencing Theater, a piece I wrote for HowlRound. According to video projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, “every playwright and director alive today grew up in the age of cinema and television… Theater directors want scenes to ‘dissolve’ into each other; they'd like a ‘close up’—these are cinematic and TV terms. It would be hard now to write a play like Long Days Journey into Night—four hours in one room seems unthinkable.” Is that true?
Has the influence of what we can call “screen culture” on balance enhanced or damaged the theater?
3. It is no great mystery why the NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music, the first live broadcast of a musical in half a century, was mocked and deplored—and why it was the most widely-viewed three hours on NBC in a decade. Much of the reason for both is the same: Carrie Underwood.
“When Carrie Underwood stepped out on the (wooded, not grassy) hills and started singing, I wished the hills were alive with the sound of hungry mountain lions,” Charlotte Alter wrote in Time. “Why wasn’t she Julie Andrews? Is being Julie Andrews so much to ask for?”
Alter’s review was if anything kinder than many of the tens of thousands of snarky tweets during the broadcast, prompting Justin Guarini to tweet: “People like 2b evil on twitter, don't they?... have some respect for artists doing live theater, people!”
The only performers given universal respect were those with extensive experience on stage, above all Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti. (One wag tweeted: “Someone give Audra a back massage. It must be sore after carrying that whole show.”)
But why did almost everybody, including Alter, call the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews the “original” Sound of Music; and what does it say that even dedicated theatergoers seemed to scorn NBC’s decision to present the (actual) original stage musical? Was it really because, as TV Guide’s Matt Roush maintained, that the restored songs and scenes were “a reminder of how much of an improvement the beloved 1965 Julie Andrews film was over the source material”?
4. Why do readers so devour “recaps” that they have proliferated, but so shun reviews that drama critics are being laid off nation-wide, their positions eliminated?
5. How could a much-praised play like August: Osage County—which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, five Tony Awards including best play, and raves from New York drama critics—produce a movie that film critics rated a meh? Tracy Letts wrote both the play and the screenplay.
6. Is it disquieting that so many of the professional film critics, even those who work in offices within walking distance of Broadway, could write a sentence such as “I never saw Mr. Letts’s play onstage, so I will defer to the judgment of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize jury and my theatergoing brethren in the critical profession” (A.O. Scott, the New York Times); “I have to confess that (a) I never saw this Pulitzer Prize-winning vehicle by Tracy Letts when it was on stage and (b) nothing about this film version makes me regret that choice” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times); “I haven’t seen Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'August: Osage County,' but people whose judgment I trust say that the piece worked powerfully in the theatre—which is, perhaps, where it should have remained.” (David Denby, the New Yorker)
Is it disturbing that film critics who admitted that they hadn’t seen the most talked-about play in years felt free to speculate about the play they hadn’t seen? (Scott: “It is possible that [film director] Mr. Wells has simply mishandled the material, riding roughshod over subtleties and muffling bravura moments. But it also may be that the awkward transition from stage to screen has exposed weak spots in Mr. Letts’s dramatic architecture and bald spots in his writing.” Turan: "August plays like the play it was, with dialogue and situations displaying the kind of artificiality that does not work well on the screen.")
Is it enough to judge an adaptation on its own merits? How important is it for a professional critic to be acquainted with a work’s previous incarnations? Would film critics 50 years ago have seen the most talked-about play of their era? What accounts for the difference?
7. In the current Broadway season, there are some half dozen new stage adaptations of well-known movies: in chronological order, Big Fish, A Time To Kill, (both of which got mediocre reviews and closed quickly), and (opening within the next few months), The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky, Aladdin, and Bullets Over Broadway?
Would you trust less a review of any of these shows by a critic who had not seen the movie?
8. Is something inevitably lost in the translation between stage and screen? Between screen and stage? In which direction has it been smoother?
9. In a recent article, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, sifting through some recent studies, observes: “The idea that you might voluntarily go out at night to see a half-dozen human beings act out a story in person…is now alien to most Americans, especially younger ones,” thanks to what he calls the “stay-at-home mindset” engendered by the “on-demand mentality” (e.g. Netflix.) He suggests a marketing campaign to promote the intimacy and “artisanal” quality that comes with the “immediate physical presence of flesh-and-blood actors.”
What can theaters do to combat the “stay-at-home mindset”—to stay live and alive?