FRESNO, Calif. — The TV hills have been alive with the “The Sound of Music” since ABC first aired the feature film in 1976.
Since then, the broadcast of the movie — winner of five Oscars, including Best Picture — has become a mainstay of network and cable programming. But a new voice will echo through the hills this year as NBC airs a live stage production of the musical on Thursday, with Carrie Underwood stepping into the role made so famous by Julie Andrews.
“The Sound of Music Live!” is adapted from the Broadway musical, with songs written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The production, based on the book “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” by Maria von Trapp, is the story of a young woman who leaves an Austrian convent to become a governess to the seven children of a naval officer widower.
Executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who have made a concentrated effort to bring theater to the masses through films and TV projects, stress this new staging is not an attempt to replace the much-beloved feature film.
“We aren’t remaking the film. Our production is designed to be a companion piece to the film. The two can be viewed together,” Meron says during a quick telephone interview during the last weeks of rehearsal. “My first encounter with ‘The Sound of Music’ was the movie and afterward I saw it on stage. When I saw it on stage, I loved it and still loved the movie. It was great to see how they had changed things for the movie.
“We feel like we are re-examining and re-imagining ‘The Sound of Music.’ It’s something that no one has tried to do in many years.”
Although he’s very confident about the way the show is progressing, a lot of little items continue to be checked and rechecked. It’s been some time since a live stage production was attempted on TV. But there have been some — two of the better-known efforts being the 1956 broadcast of “Peter Pan” on NBC and the 1957 telecast of “Cinderella” on CBS.
“Peter Pan” was shown as part of “Producers’ Showcase,” a 90-minute anthology series. Tony winners Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard starred in the production that featured music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. A year later, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the musical “Cinderella” specifically for TV as a vehicle for Julie Andrews, who played the title role. More than 100 million people viewed the TV stage show.
Meron and Zadan are familiar with the needs of bringing a stage show to the small screen after producing TV movies based on “Gypsy,” “Annie” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The team also produced the NBC drama “Smash.” That series dealt with staging a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. But Meron says that production was so different that little about it can help with this week’s live endeavor.
Meron and Zadan have learned the value of combining stage veterans with big name stars. Unless you count standing in front of arenas filled with people as stage experience, Underwood’s a novice to musical theater work.
Underwood does bring one of the hottest names in music to the production — and a voice that’s already won her six Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards and 10 Academy of Country Music Awards. She’s been on a meteoric musical rise since winning the fourth season of Fox’s “American Idol.”
She’ll need all of her musical chops to sing many of the show’s signature songs, including “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi.”
Underwood was the first person Meron and Zadan thought of when they started putting together the cast for the live production.
“We just felt from the start she was Maria,” Meron says. “We knew Carrie as an incredible singer and that she was the multimedia artist that we needed. Singing live is not alien to Carrie; acting is new. I will tell you this, no one has worked harder and has been more prepared than Carrie.”
Underwood arrived two weeks before the first day of rehearsal with the entire production committed to memory. She spent that extra time working with the director and a vocal coach to get rid of the twang that reveals her Oklahoma heritage.
The “Sound of Music” star doesn’t have a long theater pedigree, but the people around her do. They include Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader and Christian Borle as Max Detweiler.
McDonald — whose five Tony Awards were for “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Ragtime,” “Master Class” and “Carousel” — has worked with Meron and Zadan twice before. She was in their 1999 TV version of “Annie” and 2008 TV adaptation of the stage show “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“Just like Carrie, Audra was the first person we thought of for Mother Abbess. All we could think of was that incredible singing voice performing ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ This is the third time we’ve worked with Audra and she is a goddess,” Meron says.
Her co-stars are no slouches. Benanti won the 2008 Tony for actress in a musical for “Gypsy,” while Borle took home the 2012 Tony for actor in a play for “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
The cast also includes the von Trapp children: Ariane Rinehart (Liesl), Michael Nigro (Friedrich), Ella Watts-Gorman (Louisa), Joe West (Kurt), Sophia Caruso (Brigitta), Grace Rundhaug (Marta) and Peyton Ella (Gretl).
Once the cast was in place, the team went to work dealing with the physical logistics of staging the show, from building sets to putting together the 40-piece orchestra to record the soundtrack.
The sets were easy because the production had been performed on Broadway. The big difference is that while a stage production is divided into acts, television works with exact commercial breaks. Meron explains that the scene changes actually create the perfect place for commercial breaks. In some occasions, the commercial break gives them additional time to move to other sets or change costumes.
“The Sound of Music” will air in a three-hour block, which includes 140 minutes without commercials.
There’s been no trouble getting the stage production to fit the schedule, unlike some of the past airings of the feature film that runs 174 minutes. Editing of the film to show in the three-hour TV block meant the loss of songs and dialogue until NBC opted in 1995 to put the movie in a four-hour block. There will be no such problem with the live telecast.
Despite all of the planning, anything can happen with live television. Meron’s not worried about what could go wrong and looks at that as why the production should be live.
“It’s the excitement of doing it. You can think you have thought of everything but the uncertainty and the immediacy of the live show just adds to the excitement,” Meron says.
That excitement will come on a weekday instead of Sunday, when the film version of “The Sound of Music” traditionally airs. The Sunday slot wasn’t open because of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
“The Sound of Music Live!” will be shown on tape delay on the West Coast.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE!
8 p.m. EST Thursday