During rehearsals for NBC's upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, veteran stage and screen producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan settle down in a playroom provided for the young actors cast as the von Trapp children. Surrounded by toys and books, the longtime collaborators offer a few clarifications about their latest project.
First and foremost: "We are not doing a remake of the movie," Meron says, referring to the beloved 1965 adaptation starring Julie Andrews as the children's caretaker and eventual stepmother, Maria, and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp. "We would never do a remake, because there's no reason to — the movie is perfect."
Rather, they are presenting the original Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which premiered on Broadway in 1959 — but in this case, "not on a Broadway stage, or in front of an audience," Zadan notes.
Meron smiles at this. "All of us — the cast, the designers, the directors — have been hit up for tickets."
A number of stage names are involved in the production, airing Thursday at 8 p.m. live ET/delayed PT. Zadan and Meron tapped several with whom they had worked on a 2011 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe: director Rob Ashford, musical director David Chase; set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Catherine Zuber. (TV veteran Beth McCarthy-Miller is co-directing with Ashford.)
The producers also recruited performers with extensive musical-theater experience. True Blood star Stephen Moyer had appeared on London's West End, and in a Hollywood Bowl staging of Cabaret. Laura Benanti, who plays Elsa, Captain von Trapp's pre-Maria romantic interest, played Maria herself in a 1998 Broadway revival, when she was just 19.
Benanti's fellow Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Christian Borle, respectively cast as the Mother Abbess and the Captain and Elsa's mutual friend Max, had both worked with Zadan and Meron before — Borle in the series Smash, McDonald in television productions of Annie and the play A Raisin in the Sun.
"We started courting Audra from day one, with a vengeance," Zadan says. "It was touch and go for a while, because she had pre-booked a concert tour and we had to work around her schedule. But we knew that there isn't a human being on earth who could sing Climb Ev'ry Mountain better than Audra. We just had to have her in this."
But the producers' first choice for their leading lady was a woman with no musical-theater credits, and barely any acting experience. The wholesomely pretty American Idol winner-turned-country and pop star Carrie Underwood had made TV appearances on Sesame Street and How I Met Your Mother, and popped up in the 2011 indie film Soul Surfer; but Meron says, "I think we all consider this her acting debut, really."
Rather than having her audition for the gig, he and Zadan asked Underwood to lunch. "We spent several hours just talking with her, about how she saw the project and what she would do" as Maria, Zadan recalls. "And at the end of the lunch we called (NBC Entertainment chairman) Bob Greenblatt, and we said, 'She's it. This is the way to go.'"
That was about a year ago; and ever since, Meron notes, Underwood has been hard at work. "She's taking this very, very seriously. She hired a vocal coach to take the twang out of her voice and to learn how to sing in the Broadway idiom. Two weeks before the official start of rehearsals, she came to New York to work one-on-one with Rob Ashford and David Chase, so that she would be more up to speed. She has her own skills, of course, but she's also learning from the people we've surrounded her with."
Underwood also traveled to Salzburg last summer, to learn more about the real Maria von Trapp — whom she had come to know, like most, through Julie Andrews' cherished film performance, having never seen the show on stage.
"I've actually learned while doing this that my parents saw The Sound of Music on one of their first dates," Underwood says during a rehearsal break. "The movie was always in my life, because my mom loved it so much."
Still, the singer discovered that the stage incarnation of Maria was different from both the woman who inspired her and the subsequent movie character. "I think the movie focuses more on the love story" between Maria and the captain, Underwood says. In the original musical, "Maria has to work harder to win the children over; they're more skeptical at first. And there's less of a girly cat fight between Elsa and Maria."
The "stage version also makes a bigger deal of the political goings-on" that inform the captain and Maria's budding relationship, Underwood says — specifically the rise of the Third Reich's influence in Austria, and how Captain von Trapp, a World War I hero, resists it, taking a great risk in refusing a position serving Hitler's cause.
Rodgers and Hammerstein and librettists Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse "wrote a darker ending" for the original musical, Zadan says. "When you get to the part where the Nazis are going after the von Trapps, it becomes really scary."
For Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the opportunity to highlight the social and political resonance of the composer and lyricist's work for a new audience was hugely attractive. Chapin points to a pair of songs, How Can Love Survive and No Way To Stop It, in which Elsa and Max respectively comment on privilege and politics. Both were excluded from the movie; "Now people will hear Laura Benanti and Christian Borle sing them," Chapin says.
No Way to Stop It also features the captain and, Meron notes, emphasizes the "his political differences with Elsa. He won't compromise and she will. I think that's a factor, along with his fascination with Maria, in their breaking up."
Movie fans who haven't seen Sound of Music on stage may also be surprised to hear My Favorite Things sung by Maria with Mother Abbess, rather than the von Trapp kids, who instead join her in her bedroom for The Lonely Goatherd (performed during a puppet show on screen). I Have Confidence, a tune written specifically for the film, to accompany Maria's journey from the convent to the von Trapp home, is left out; though as in the movie, the graceful ballad Something Good is substituted for An Ordinary Couple, the song with which Maria and the Captain originally declared their mutual love onstage.
"We like to think of our production as a companion piece to the film," Meron says. "Something familiar, but a little different — and a beautiful piece of work in itself. After all, there never would have been the movie if there hadn't been this show."
The Sound of Music Live! airs Thursday, December 5 at 8pm on NBC!