Bringing theater to TV viewers

'Sound of Music' veterans reunite for live version of 'On Golden Pond'

Viewers the world over are familiar with the team of actors Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews from their definitive performances in the movie classic "The Sound of Music."

Sunday evening, they will reunite to play a husband and wife in a very different relationship in On Golden Pond (CBS, 9-11 p.m.), a love story about a married couple who return to their summer home and reexamine their life and relationships.

CBS, as part of its commitment to offer one live TV event a year, will broadcast from Studio 46 a newly updated version of the Academy Award-winning film, directed by Ernest Thompson, the playwright upon whose stage work the film was based.

"It's a rare opportunity for a writer to be able to go back to something from 23 years ago," says Mr. Thompson. "The world has changed, and I've changed. To have the opportunity to readdress the themes of the play, and to make it more current, and be able to luxuriate in having two very different actors playing these parts is a huge luxury for me."

For one thing, notions about age have changed significantly, the playwright says. "Today, a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s can have very different feelings than in a prior generation. Our stars are attractive and vivacious," Mr. Thompson says. "The characters are still hot for each other. They're vibrant people, very alive."

Teenage boys also speak differently today than they did a quarter of a century ago. By being able to make all these changes, "these are all ways to bolster the dynamics between the characters," Thompson says.

The single live performance also offers technical opportunities for the producer and playwright. Sports and newscasting have taken the art of live television into new arenas not previously available to television drama.

"The technology that has evolved from football and basketball and hockey, with the advent of small cameras, [allows] us to ... follow action in a way we could never do before," Thompson says.

Although "On Golden Pond" began as a play and has continued to be revived in theaters around the world, the film version starring Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn has become fixed in people's minds almost as firmly as have Plummer and Andrews in "The Sound of Music."

Plummer, a Canadian and a veteran of both stage and screen, scoffs at the notion that he might be overshadowed by one of Hollywood's most beloved actors, Henry Fonda, or that it might be difficult to portray a quintessentially Yankee character. "We've both played Americans before," he says of himself and Andrews, who is British.

"I've done Mike Wallace and F. Lee Bailey," he adds with a laugh, wondering how much more American one can get. And he is also quick to highlight his sterling theater credentials. Creating a character is the work of an actor, he points out.

Beyond that, the actors' histories worked for them. "The fact that these two [characters] have such a long, enduring relationship is what the play is about," Thompson says. "The fact that these two actors know each other and are old friends is a bonus."

CBS has not invited an audience into the studio. Andrews says anticipating this has helped her focus on communicating through the camera. "There's always the temptation to play to someone who is there versus the camera," she says.

Live performance is not a particular challenge for either Andrews or Plummer. Both have extensive stage backgrounds.

For audiences who don't attend theater, live television is an excellent opportunity to feel some of the excitement and energy of a stage performance, Andrews says.

"We're hoping that we'll give the viewing audience the idea that this is just for them," she says. "It's not a pay-per-view [movie]; it's live, right now, almost the real theater experience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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