J on Why Laura Benanti’s Baroness Was the Best Character in The Sound of Music Live

I guess you could call me a purist.  Scratch that.  I am a purist.

I have nurtured a loyal and passionate love for The Sound of Music since I was four years old.

I’ve seen the stage play three times.  I’ve seen the film more times than I can count.  I’ve researched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creation of the musical.  My copy of Charmian Carr’s memoir is dog-eared from repeat readings (she played Liesl in the movie, and almost didn’t get cast because her eyes were too blue).  I’ve been to the Sing-Along Sound of Music three times and counting.  So yeah, The Sound of Music is one of my favourite things.

Naturally I was both excited and skeptical when I heard about The Sound of Music Live event on NBC.  After watching it, I have a lot of thoughts.

I am not going to get into all the things I think this production did wrong (which were very, very numerous).  Instead, I want to talk about Elsa Schraeder, the infamous Baroness, the “other woman” played by Laura Benanti in The Sound of Music Live.  The Baroness gets a bad rap a lot of the time, especially due to the movie version in which she is catty, manipulative, scheming, and mean (but she has some kickass clothes and penciled eyebrows).  However, the Baroness in the original stage version of The Sound of Music is quite different.  She is an opportunist, no doubt about it, but she bases her opportunism on what she has learned from a world where she has been valued for her money and little else.  As far as she knows, Georg Von Trapp adheres to these values.  Theirs would be a marriage of matching bank accounts.

Laura Benanti as the Baroness in The Sound of Music Live - NBC

Laura Benanti as the Baroness, Stephen Moyer as the Captain, and Christian Borle as Max in The Sound of Music Live – NBC

But the Baroness in the stage version actually cares about Georg as well.  Sure she’s materialistic, but so is the Captain as far as she knows.  As played by Laura Benanti, Elsa isn’t the villain.  She’s someone who wants and expects to soon be part of the Von Trapp family.  She’s nice to the kids.  She goes toe-to-toe with Max Detweiller for witty repartee.  Her two songs, excised from the movie, reveal a lighthearted ability to tease the Captain and an acknowledgement of her own materialism and moral ambiguity (my favourite line from the song How Can Love Survive? is “He’s fond of bonds and he owns a lot / I have a plane and a diesel yacht / Plenty of nothing [we] haven’t got / How can love survive?”  Musical theatre meta?  Yes please!)

Benanti sparkles with classic movie-star charisma and brings a depth to the character of the Baroness that is seldom seen.  There is love behind the wealthy exterior, and when she realizes that her relationship with Georg is over, Benanti shows us the real pain this causes Elsa.  Her singing voice is melodious and strong (I would have loved to see her as Maria on Broadway, a role she played back in 1998).  Her acting is perfect for the stage: commanding (when she’s there, you know it!) but also believable and subtle when it needs to be.  I know she’s Broadway star, so this makes sense, but I had never actually seen her in anything before.  In The Sound of Music Live, the Baroness was my favourite character.  I saw lots of tweets from people who were rooting for her and Georg to stay together, and for the first time I was too!

And now one more word on my purist nature.  I understand that it’s got to be difficult for anyone to take on the part of Maria, a character made iconic by such powerhouses of musical theatre as Mary Martin (from the original Broadway production in 1959) and Julie Andrews (from the 1965 film).  However, I was completely won over by Elicia MacKenzie, who made the role her own with a beautiful singing voice, sweet clumsiness, and genuine likeability in the 2008 Toronto revival of the stage musical.  So my purism is not unreasonable – it can be overcome by a great performance.  It’s just that in The Sound of Music Live, that performance came from Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

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