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The Elitism of Carrie Underwood Apologists

Defenders of Carrie Underwood’s wooden acting on NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound of Music pretty much all make this argument: Yes, her acting was terrible; yes, casting someone with zero musical-theater experience was a stunt to cash in on her star power; but the only way to make the economics of a three-hour primetime broadcast of musical theater work was to have someone as popular as Underwood in the lead; and having 18+ million people watch The Sound of Music instead of some mindless reality show is a good thing.

There’s no denying that Underwood helped put butts in seats, that her casting helped expose many people to musical theater for the first time.

But just because these people don’t attend Broadway musicals doesn’t mean they cannot appreciate good acting, that they don’t demand high quality in all aspects of the entertainment they consume. 

Whether the defenders realize it or not, what they’re arguing is: If the only way you’d tune into The Sound of Music is if Carrie Underwood is in it, then you’re too stupid to know if someone is acting poorly, so why bother casting someone who can act?

The cheap production values of the show further embodied NBC’s lazy and cynical attitude towards Carrie Underwood fans — they’re just too stupid to realize how terrible the sets and props were.

Now here’s the thing: when it comes to musicals, it is possible to have your cake and eat it to.

Last month PBS aired an all-star production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The cast included: Stephen Colbert, Neil Patrick Harris, Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks and Patti LuPone, among others.

It’s not only a star-studded cast, but the actors work in very different genres of TV — everyone in America probably watches at least one of the shows that the cast is in.

But most importantly, everyone in this production could sing AND act.

Had this been aired on one of the major four networks it would have easily been a ratings hit. And I can’t help wonder if someone at NBC attend this production, came to that same conclusion, and this is where they got the idea to do The Sound of Music.

Now in fairness, the broadcast of Company wasn’t live nor was it staged. But The Sound of Music wasn’t quite live either — the orchestra was prerecorded. In Company the New York Philharmonic is on stage behind the singers. An actual full orchestra in a Broadway musical is something you’re not likely to see anymore, even in New York City. 

But the point is, that there are plenty of stars that can sing and act. Finding singers with star power is not as hard as people are making it out to be. 

Of course, NBC is hardly the first production company to give the intelligence of its viewers little credit.

Since the days of Elvis Presley the movie industry has believed that a celebrity is beloved in one entertainment field, people will pay money to see them in another, no matter how terrible they are.

This is how we got a string of Shaquille O’Neal movies and why Justin Timberlake keeps finding work in Hollywood despite his many box office bombs.

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