News Column

Live From New York: 'the Sound of Music'

December 4, 2013


The trills will be live with "The Sound of Music."

On Thursday night, NBC will attempt quite a stunt, returning viewers to the early days of television with a three-hour telecast of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic -- the first full-scale musical mounted by a broadcast network for live TV in more than 50 years.

If you're expecting, though, to essentially see a replay of the beloved Oscar-winning 1965 movie that starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, scratch that thought.

"It's not a remake of the film," says Laura Benanti, the Tony Award-winning actress who grew up in Kinnelon and plays the elegant Baroness Elsa Schraeder in the production. "It is sort of a hybrid between a Broadway show and a television [movie]. And it will be a live televised version of the stage production."

Specifically, "The Sound of Music Live!" -- which stars Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer -- is based on the original 1959 Broadway stage version, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Mary Martin originated the role of Maria Rainer, the postulant- turned-nanny-turned-wife of Capt. Georg von Trapp and stepmother to his seven children.

That production, which ran until 1963, boasted two songs that did not make it into the 1965 film -- "No Way to Stop It" (on which Elsa joins the Captain and their buddy, Max Detweiler) and "How Can Love Survive?" (Elsa and Max).

Both songs have been restored for Thursday's telecast -- and the fact that Benanti's character happens to sing those two songs might take away some of the sting for fans who think Benanti, 34, would still make a fine Maria, which she played in a 1999 "Sound of Music" revival on Broadway, when she was just 19 and not long out of Kinnelon High School. Richard Chamberlain, Captain von Trapp in that production, was 65 at the time.

Age is a strange thing in show business -- Martin was just weeks shy of her 46th birthday when she started playing Maria on Broadway, and at 30, Underwood is just a few years younger than Benanti -- but such vagaries are clearly not something Benanti cares to dwell on. In a recent conversation, she preferred to chat about her new album, "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," and this telecast.

Benanti thinks that by broadening the character of the wealthy but not particularly maternal Elsa -- who gets engaged to the captain before either of them realizes he's in love with Maria -- executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan introduce more romantic and dramatic tension into the story.

"I think that the relationship between the Captain and Maria is more interesting when there's a threat," Benanti says. "The Captain and Elsa seem happy at first. They have a real grown-up relationship. So, I think expanding the character of Elsa, in the way that the stage play did, adds to it."

"The Sound of Music" is set in and around Salzburg, Austria, in 1938. And given what was about to happen -- that year, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria as part of a political union with Germany known as the Anschluss -- the song "No Way to Stop It" is, fittingly, "a pretty intense song ... and it lends a darkness," Benanti says.

Most of the cast members, though well known to television audiences, are also theater pros: Christian Borle ("Smash"), who plays Max, and five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald ("Private Practice"), who, as the Mother Abbess, sings "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" - - are Broadway veterans. And Moyer ("True Blood") has done theater in Los Angeles.

Benanti, who starred last season with Matthew Perry on the NBC comedy "Go On" (and will have a recurring role on Showtime's "Nurse Jackie"), has appeared in the Broadway musicals "Into the Woods," "Swing!" and "Nine," and won a Tony for her role as Gypsy Rose Lee in the 2008 Broadway revival of "Gypsy." But her Broadway debut at age 19 -- she landed the Maria role after Rebecca Luker, whom she was understudying, left the show -- was amazing for a Jersey girl who grew up dreaming of being on Broadway.

"I look back now, and I think, first of all, they were so brave to allow me to do that," Benanti says. "To put that production in my hands was a very brave move. And I was so fearless, just because I didn't know any better. It really is such an astonishing story."

Although Underwood, a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning country- music star, is new to acting, she's no stranger to live television, having risen to fame after winning "American Idol" in 2005.

The cast recorded a "Sound of Music Live!" album, which was released Tuesday, and a home-video edition of the broadcast will go on sale Dec. 17. In addition to the two songs that were not in the film, the TV production will feature one that Rodgers wrote specifically for the film -- "Something Good." (Another song from the original show, "An Ordinary Couple," sung by Maria and the Captain, did not make the cut.)

The last time a renowned Broadway musical was performed live on network television was in 1955, when Mary Martin starred in "Peter Pan." Two years later, the musical "Cinderella" premiered live on CBS, but Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote that one for the small screen. (It starred a 21-year-old Julie Andrews.)

Thursday's big "television event," as NBC is calling it, will originate from a Long Island soundstage. It will run three hours, and if something goes wrong, well, there's no way to stop it. No Auto-Tuning. No do-overs.

At 8 p.m. sharp, "The Sound of Music Live!" will go on, with songs we have sung for near 60 years.

And a couple that have not been heard in a very long while.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters