If you’re like me, you reacted with great trepidation to the news that Carrie Underwood was going to star in a live televised production of “The Sound of Music,” a sentimental favorite for baby boomers and beyond.
But advance press announced that this special holiday offering would be based on the original Broadway stage production, which was a particular treat to this musical fanatic; I grew up listening to my parents’ Mary Martin-starring “Sound of Music” soundtrack record on their giant console record player in the living room. I staged elaborate re-creations of “So Long, Farewell” with my neighborhood friends, I can sing the complicated middle section of “Do-Re-Mi” with aplomb, and I know all the verses to “My Favorite Things.” I learned to yodel like a goatherd before I was five, and almost burst a blood vessel belting out “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with extra Reverend-Mother vibrato. (I even know how to solve a problem like Maria.)
Let’s face it: There was no way I was missing it. They had me at “The hills are alive…”
But social media blew up with indignation at the audacity of such an undertaking, generally citing the fact that the beloved 1965 movie, starring the incomparable Julie Andrews, is “iconic” and therefore should not be tarnished by a potentially disappointing remake.
But what is really meant by “iconic”? By definition, a cultural icon is an image, person, place or work of art that is easily recognized and has great cultural significance to a wide group of people. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” painting sold for a record $46 million. I think it’s safe to say that the renowned Saturday Evening Post illustrator has earned his designation as an “American Icon.”
However, nowadays people like to throw around the word “iconic” with cavalier frequency. In the media, many well-known examples of popular culture have been called “iconic” just by virtue of being amazing (another overused word, but that’s a topic for another day). For example, if you do an Internet search on the words “iconic breaking bad,” you will come up with “The 17 Most Iconic Scenes in Breaking Bad,” “The Iconic Imagery of Breaking Bad,” “Twelve Iconic Breaking Bad Props You Can Actually Own,” “How Did the Breaking Bad Finale Compare to Other Iconic Show Endings?” and “Walt’s 10 Most Iconic Moments.” And that’s just the first few listings. It’s a great show—maybe the Greatest Show—but that’s a lot of “cultural significance” to attribute to a single television series.
So what makes a person/performance/movie/TV show “iconic”? Perhaps a suitable qualifier would be whether its evocative power stands the test of time: Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Stewart, the “Hollywood” sign, and Mount Rushmore are American icons. Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” is an iconic performance…but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the charms of “Gangnam Style” and “What Does the Fox Say?” will eventually fade.
Is “The Sound of Music” iconic? Absolutely. But to me, that doesn’t mean it should be perched on a shelf to collect dust. Sure, the Carrie Underwood version had its flaws, and the critics (both professional and self-appointed) had a ball lambasting the acting. But if you were to judge the production by the accompanying enthusiastic, off-key sing-along performance that took place on my couch, or a popular high school production of the musical, or yes, even a backyard childhood staging of “So Long, Farewell”—it would be apparent that some icons can hold up to a little tarnish…and emerge better than ever.