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9 Questions that August

Osage County and The Sound Of Music Provoke About Theater

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.

Stills from August: Osage County and NBC's The Sound of Music.
Film adaptation of August: Osage County (left)
and NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music (right)

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?”

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.

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?


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I think it is important to note that one type of theater is emerging as something which is interesting and exciting. And that is the immersive theater being done by Punchdrunk. Theater is not dead it is just evolving.
Also I reject your assertion of a screen culture, live music and stand-up comedy have great (and perhaps growing) attendance.

I didn't mean to imply that American culture=screen culture and nothing else. I think somebody could make such an argument, but I wasn't making it.

And yes, theater is evolving in ways that are meant to offer experiences that cannot really be replicated -- such as Punchdrunk, and the many marathon and epic theater that I wrote about in a piece for Howlround -- The New Marathons

"What can theaters do to combat the 'stay-at-home mindset'?

Probably nothing. It's a little like asking what we can do to get people to go back to sitting around the radio in the evening.

I see two problems: 1) the dedicated "theater building" is an outdated, 19th Century delivery method for theater (Merriam Webster's 4th definition of the word.) 2. the commercialization of entertainment/art has created the widespread belief that only the "elite" (i.e., the people who are paid obscene amounts of money) are worthy of being watched playing ball, acting in plays, singing a song, etc. Before mass entertainment media brought entertainment to the globe, audiences didn't mind that their family, friends and neighbors weren't professional actors, singers, baseball players, etc. They participated in and watched these activities and had fun in their local community.

Now we live in a passive, "consumer" society in which too many people think that only Meryl Streep or Peyton Manning or Jay-Z are worth being watched. Paychecks are synonymous with the value of the viewing experience. Sadly, I see that getting worse instead of better.

Personally, I'd say pull down the dinosaur theater buildings and get theater back amongst the people in meaningful ways--- like the group in Iran who performs two-person plays while riding around the city in taxicabs with their 2-3 person audience or Boal's Imaginary Theater in which provocative 10-minute plays "erupt" in the middle of restaurants or subways and leave the audience (who didn't know they just saw a play) debating the moral issues played out before them.

If it make any difference, I'm a stage actor/director/producer.

FWIW, Bridges of Madison County was a book that was adapted as a movie, both reportedly romantic potboilers.

Really? Movie critics should shell out big bucks to see every play on the offhand chance that they might be made into films someday? Have you seen all of the Fast and Furious pics just in case you might have to judge the quality of the Broadway adaptation in a few years? Get real.

I'm sure you're joking when you define "intellectual" as making big bucks.

I was just asking questions, not making conclusions. But I've been taken aback by the many people who seem outraged by the suggestion that it would be good for critics (even movie critics) to have a breadth and depth of cultural knowledge not limited to their particular field.
As a reader, I've gotten more out of reviews and other essays that place a work in a wider context.

I am all in favor of everyone having a breadth and depth of cultural knowledge. Which is why I replied to Cardboardbelt as i did. He seems to think that movie critics should know all about the theater, but shrank in horror from the thought that he had some similar obligation to familiarize himself with popular movies. Now back to whether piling up cash by turning out films of questionable artistic merit is a sign of intellect. A motion picture is a machine only slightly less complicated than the space shuttle. Do you think just anyone can make one fly?

I don't know any definition of intelligence other than the ability to effortlessly traffic in ideas. To smoothly shift your mental gears, so to speak. To put the pedal to the metal in your cranium. To break away from gridlocked conformity and race down new avenues of intellectual adventure. To traffic in the idea of making movies about the thrill of disobeying traffic laws. No, we can't agree.

I had the privilege of seeing August: Osage County with its original cast at Steppenwolf. I was interviewing to be an intern at the time and was offered tickets to see the show to "get a feel" for the company. That being said, I saw it with no expectations whatsoever. To say I was blown away would be an understatement. So while I understand the argument that "you put an insanely popular cast together and that's why it was a success," it doesn't hold if you don't know those actors. This was the first time I was seeing any of these performers on stage; I'm not from Chicago. But I live here now, and that play is the reason why.

I saw the movie on Thanksgiving. It's totally different. Deanna Dunagan rocked my world when I saw her on stage, but Meryl Streep (though I was skeptical at first) won me over in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Naturally there are going to be moments and feelings lost in translation. The movie is NOT 3 1/2 hours, it's only 2. So there are a solid 90 minutes of material we never get to see as an audience. It's the difference between watching an athlete sprint versus running a marathon. I don't think it's fair to compare the two.

That said, you also cannot compare JULIE ANDREWS to anyone--let alone Carrie Underwood. Carrie Underwood did a good job. For someone with little-to-no musical theatre training (she won American Idol, remember? Give her a break) she was committed, in the moment and totally likable. Does she have the same acting chops as Julie Andrews? Of course not, but she shouldn't be expected to. You're asking someone who happens to own some sneakers to run a marathon. People are getting angry at someone taking a creative risk and putting their neck out there to bring a sense of nostalgia back to public broadcasting. I was just so thrilled that a holiday special didn't involve yet another painful rendition of Baby It's Cold Outside.

These two projects are doing something positive, bringing America's attention back to the playwright and trying to capture something smart, though maybe (admittedly) unattainable. It's far less offensive than the current Broadway lineup of what I call "Things you once loved that are now a shitty musical."

I'm glad this article has started a conversation but instead of attacking two projects that actually brought some interest back to the stage, let's talk about how there doesn't seem to be an original idea anymore. See also: Ghost the musical, Shrek, Young Frankenstein, Dirty Dancing, HIGH FIDELITY (jesus christ), Footloose, everything Disney, and the list goes on.

And on.

And on.


I'm struck by the phrase "artisanal quality" of live theatre. It reminds me of a piece in today's NY Times by David Brooks on boutique hotels and the appeal they hold for younger consumers (they're individualized, they're hip, they're social, they appeal to a sense of culture and aesthetics) . I wonder if there is an impulse here that theatre can tap.

I saw the original production of A:OC and, as I said at the time, the play itself wasn't that great. It was the extremely unusual gathering of such a large number great actors, under a great director, that resulted in a production so powerful that some (starting with the Tribune's reviewer) (though, to her credit, not the Sun-times reviewer) made the mistake of thinking that the play itself was great.

But those of us who did not get caught up in the BS (or, if you prefer, "hype") are not surprised to find that the text cannot stand on its own.

(Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts have been in so many movies that seeing them on screen simply does not have the same visceral feel as watching high quality stage actors perform live.)

Anyone who is angry at those who are taking pot shots at the film of should instead be angry at themselves for having fallen for the myth that this play deserves all of the accolades it got.

Agreed. Saw the original NYC production and felt, at the time, it was merely the best episode of Reba ever. I think the film critics are simply seeing the play for what it was, without the hype.

I'd be wary of drawing too many conclusions from the "Sound of Music" fiasco. It put up a hokey low-budget, low-lead-performer-quality production against one of the best film productions of a musical of all time (starring one of the best stage and screen musical performers of all time, and shot on location with a big budget and great director).

Besides, on TV there is no "live" -- it is impossible to tell whether you are watching a recording or not. (And in fact, there is almost always at least a five second delay.)

It was a celeb-centered ratings stunt, not theater.

These are all really interesting questions, grim, in a way. In furthering the idea of the "on demand mentality" I think its important to question the Broadway shows whose recordings are streaming on Netflix, ie: Memphis, Company and most recently, Shrek, another movie turned musical. Are we theatre goers and the artists making them available then perpetrating the "stay at home mindset"? Or is this a bigger discussion on accessibility of the art form? Are those of us who were wary and disgruntled by the Sound of Music: Live! protecting the sacredness of the stage or are we harming it by being 'elitist'?