Hills coming alive with ‘The Sound of Music Live!’

Starring as Maria in NBC's new version of "The Sound of Music," Carrie Underwood is clad in a T-shirt and leggings plus a wedding veil as she reverently steps through the Manhattan rehearsal space while three dozen castmates, on their feet as if in church, sing "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"

Underwood's procession ends at the "altar" (marked by a music stand) to join her groom, Capt. von Trapp, played by jeans-and-sweater-sporting Stephen Moyer.

During this preliminary run-through a few weeks ago, much work clearly remained to get "The Sound of Music Live!" ready for airtime on Dec. 5 (8 p.m.), when it will make history: More than a half-century has passed since a broadcast network has dared to mount a full-scale musical for live TV.

It would have been risky enough revisiting this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic on any terms. But this is no remake of the not-to-be-tampered-with Julie Andrews juggernaut, declares Neil Meron. Meron and longtime partner Craig Zadan are the telecast's Oscar-winning executive producers.

Instead, "The Sound of Music Live!" is the 1959 Broadway musical reimagined for TV, then given extra crackle with a live presentation.

Meron's message: Everybody knows "The Sound of Music," or thinks they do from the 1965 film nearly everyone has seen. But relatively few fans are acquainted with the stage original. Drawing from it, "The Sound of Music Live!" is meant to feel familiar, yet at the same time come across as new and different.

Consider: Moyer with castmates Laura Benanti (as Baroness Elsa Schrader) and Christian Borle (as Max Detweiler) are rehearsing a couple of weeks later a saucy song titled "How Can Love Survive?" This song will be brand-new to most viewers of the telecast - it was dropped from the movie.

There are still no costumes but by now the entire production has redeployed to a cavernous Long Island, N.Y., soundstage.

Grumman Studios' Stage 3, with square footage rivaling a football field's, is now home to the terrace, along with five neighboring sets evoking pre-World War II Austria including the abbey, a festival site draped with huge swastikas and the summit over which Maria, the Captain and his seven children pass to flee the Nazis at the musical's conclusion.

It is for this soaring finish that Audra McDonald reprises "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," the breathtaking anthem that Mother Abbess introduces as she sends Maria into the world and into the von Trapp household.

"In that scene, Mother Abbess is giving Maria tough love, kicking her out of the abbey," says McDonald. "But Carrie is so moving and so sweet, my challenge is to not cry when I sing it."

When she sings it, McDonald is fully capable of bringing to tears everyone within earshot. She is a classically trained soprano, a Tony- and Grammy-winning singer and stage actress who, for good measure, appeared for four seasons on ABC's "Private Practice."

Though best known as a vampire on HBO's "True Blood," Stephen Moyer, too, is a theater veteran. Last summer he returned to what he calls his first love, the musical stage, after 18 years' absence for a production of "Chicago" at the Hollywood Bowl.

Despite her status as a multiplatinum country music superstar who rose to fame as the winner of "American Idol" in 2005, at first glance Carrie Underwood might seem something of a wild card in the "Sound of Music" cast: She has never acted before.

"Carrie is one of the bravest artists we've ever worked with," says Meron, who notes that she arrived two weeks before the production's six-week rehearsal began with her lines fully memorized, to get a head start.

"Every day," she says during a break, "I feel like I discover new things and how to go places in acting that I didn't think I could go."

As she speaks, it's a scant 16 days until the broadcast. By week's end, cameras (as many as a dozen) and tons of other broadcast equipment would be brought in. In the parking lot, TV trucks would join the city of dressing-room trailers.

If graced with good ratings, this won't be the last such musical event staged live for TV, says Meron.

And in any case it ends a drought that had persisted, in effect, since the birth of video tape made live TV unnecessary and, apart from news and sportscasts, nearly extinct. Helping close out that live-TV era: "Cinderella," performed and aired by CBS on March 31, 1957, and starring 21-year-old Julie Andrews.

A made-for-TV musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, "Cinderella" was one of many collaborations by these Broadway titans that began with their pioneering 1943 musical "Oklahoma!" and continued through "The Sound of Music" 16 years later, with Mary Martin creating the role of Maria. It ran for more than 1,400 performances and won five Tonys, including a trophy for best musical.

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