Carrie Underwood as Maria, with the von Trapp children, rehearsing for "The Sound of Music," which airs live on NBC on Dec. 5.
NBC is taking a big swing Thursday night.
A network that could really use a home run is giving over all of prime time, 8-11, for a lavish live production of the beloved theater classic “The Sound of Music.”
Live acting. Live singing. One night only. No do-overs.
“No one does this on television,” says Neil Meron, who is producing the one-of-a-kind event with his longtime showbiz partner Craig Zadan. “There’s no safety net.”
The nod for this roll of the dice came from the top, NBC Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt. But the sense of what’s at stake, artistically and financially, is clear to everyone.
“Live theater on television is almost unheard of,” Meron notes. "Bob Greenblatt is taking a big risk, and I can tell you that other networks are watching.
“Broadcast TV is looking for live ‘events,’ things that make viewers tune in while they’re happening. ... It also makes advertisers happy, because they can’t fast-forward through the commercials.”
The stars have also put their lives on hold for the event — including the marquee name Carrie Underwood, who takes the role of the free-spirited singing nun Maria.
“People ask me about my Christmas plans,” Underwood says. “Or they ask me when my new CD is coming out. “I tell them, ‘When I've finished this, then I’ll get to everything else.’ ”
Underwood, an “American Idol” winner and country music star, has also become a legitimate America’s Sweetheart. Everyone loves the fresh-faced, clean-cut Oklahoman — but none of that matters when she takes on a role most closely associated with one of the world’s all-time Sweethearts: Julie Andrews.
Andrews may be British, but to Americans, she is Maria — and has been in the 48 years since the classic 1965 movie version was released.
Underwood knows she can’t win a head-to-head contest.
“It’s inevitable that I’ll be compared to Julie,” she says. “And that’s unfortunate for me, because she’s Julie Andrews and this is her most iconic role.”
Underwood will also be sharing the stage with Broadway vet Audra McDonald at the Mother Abbess.
So the singer’s hope, she says, is that viewers will realize that this “Sound of Music” is not a crass attempt to repackage the movie for a new audience.
“I just wish people would stop using the word ‘remake,’ ” she says of the stage version of the iconic musical. “Because it isn’t.”
For starters, the movie left out several of the stage songs and shuffled the positioning of others.
The movie also focused almost entirely on the budding romance between Maria and Captain Georg von Trapp, the Austrian naval hero, widower and Nazi foe played here by Stephen Moyer. The play delved much more into the backdrop of that romance, notably the darkness of Nazi Germany spreading over Europe in the 1930s.
“Many people today don’t realize the movie was very different from the original stage production,” says Zadan. “We’re doing the play, not the movie.
“I think people will realize from the first scene that this isn’t the movie,” Zadan adds.
The challenge of presenting this post-Andrews “Sound of Music” is not limited to vanquishing the ghosts of the revered film, but also dealing with an untested, albeit Grammy-winning, talent.
“Carrie doesn’t come from the musical theater world like a lot of the other people here,” Meron says. “She was more of a novice in the field. So she had some catching up to do.”
To her credit, Meron says she’s done it.
“She’s incredibly hard-working,” he says. “She went to Salzburg to get a feel for the setting. She took vocal training to sing in a theatrical style. She came to New York two weeks before rehearsals so she’d be sure she was ready.”
Still, any live performance, by definition, has an element of uncertainty for everyone.
“This is very different from preparing for a concert,” says Underwood. “In my shows, anything can happen. I go on stage with just bullet points about what I’ll do or say. Each night can be different. “Here, because it’s collaborative, you better know every line at the exact right moment. At some point all of us have felt anxiety, like what if I jump my line? You don’t want to be the one to mess up.”
Meron, as a theater veteran, says that’s both the challenge and the magic of live performance.
“Over three hours, there’s no way everything can go exactly as you planned,” he says. “And we’ll notice every little slip. As long as the audience doesn’t, that’s okay.”