December 05, 2013 6:00am PT by Philiana Ng
NBC's 'Sound of Music' Producers on Live Show Fears and Big Expectations (Q&A)
In a few hours, the curtain goes up on NBC's ambitious live production of The Sound of Music.
The one-night, three-hour event brings to life the Broadway musical (which spawned the Oscar-winning 1965 film with Julie Andrews), this time with Carrie Underwood and True Blood's Stephen Moyer leading an accomplished theater cast that includes Tony winners Audra McDonald, Christian Borle and Laura Benanti.
NBC is taking a big gamble with what it hopes will become a holiday season mainstay for years to come, with sources telling The Hollywood Reporter that the price tag for the live Sound of Music production is close to $9 million. The network has already made available a 22-song soundtrack featuring Underwood on iTunes, with plans to encore Sound of Music prior to Christmas and release a DVD version on Dec. 17, in time for holiday gift-giving.
Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, whose credits include 2002's Chicago, 2007's Hairspray and both Footlooses (1984 and 2011), talk to THR about their ambitious live production, whether they have a backup plan in case something goes wrong and why they're not remaking the 1965 movie.
What are the opportunities and challenges that are specific to doing a live TV event like this?
Neil Meron: The challenges are finding the cast that isn't afraid to do it. Also the way to block it out so there is kind of a hyper feeling of film, theater and TV insofar as we have multiple cameras and the editing and shooting is done as it's airing. So it is challenging to get all of that set in a way that we only have one opportunity to do it.
What are the advantages of doing this kind of event programming?
Craig Zadan: We have the most nerve-racking week because Dec. 5 is The Sound of Music and Dec. 8 and 9 are Bonnie & Clyde. Within a few days, we have three nights of television that are quite large and under scrutiny, and I think people will be looking to see how they are going to do. We love the idea of having event television. It's always appealed to us. To see The Sound of Music live, which hasn't been a live musical since the '50s, is historic.
Who was the toughest castmember to persuade?
Meron: The first person we cast was Carrie Underwood. Everything sprung from that. Carrie was our first choice from day one because we felt we loved the surprise of Carrie as an actress. We also felt that Carrie was Maria. She has all of the qualities of Maria. What we've learned is she is a really fast learner. She just wants to dive in and spread her wings a little bit more in other aspects of the entertainment business.
Did everyone else fall in line after she signed on?
Zadan: I wouldn't say fell in line. I wouldn't go that far. The other challenges were we wanted to hire people who had great experience on stage. Because we felt we are putting people up there live on television we wanted people who are used to performing live in front of an audience. The person we went after with tremendous passion was Audra McDonald to play Mother Abbess. We thought it'd be interesting to have an African-American Mother Abbess, which was a completely new idea. Stephen Moyer was very interesting. Neil and I are big True Blood fans and we thought he was a unique and wonderful actor. Then we discovered he had done musical theater in Great Britain, and then we found out he was about to do the Hollywood Bowl for three performances of Chicago playing Billy Flynn. All of a sudden, we found our Captain.
How involved has NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt been in bringing this to life?
Zadan: He's been incredibly involved. This project hits his sweet spot because he is a passionate devotee of theater. When we pitched him the idea of doing The Sound of Music, he understood it immediately. He's been our guardian angel throughout the whole process.
What notes has he given?
Zadan: He has been involved in every decision as one of our collaborators so it isn't that he's been surprised by anything. We've shared all the design elements, all of the creative choices that we are making with him. It's been a great collaboration with the chairman of the network on this project.
What is the most important thing that he wanted to accomplish with The Sound of Music that he communicated?
Meron: One of the things that we have had an unspoken mission about is to claim the fact that musicals are great entertainment and popular entertainment. One of the ideas behind doing Sound of Music live is taking another musical to a bigger audience as we can get to and to display how great musicals are and make it available to people that can't get to New York.
Mark Burnett's The Bible miniseries will be getting a theatrical release after airing on the History Channel earlier this year. Is that in the cards for The Sound of Music?
Zadan: You can't really do that because when you make contracts for broadcast, you are making them for TV, for streaming and for DVD. But if you want to release it in movie theaters, you have to go back to everybody and especially all the actors and they'd have to do new deals with everybody for theatrical.
Did you have any reservations about tackling such an iconic property knowing that Sound of Music loyalists will talk?
Zadan: We are hoping that audiences would want to see where the movie came from with the same story and with the same familiar songs but a little bit different.
How are you ensuring that things run smoothly on the live show?
Zadan: We are anticipating things to go smoothly. You can never account for things that are going to happen naturally, but they are going to have to make the best of it. That's the whole thing about live TV. Say something goes wrong, you are going to have to make spot decisions as to what to do. You can prepare as much as you can for what happens, but who knows?
Meron: They have to keep going. They can't stop. Somebody could trip and fall, somebody could forget their lines, somebody could hit a bad note when they are singing -- anything could happen. So you're all sitting there going, "Are we going to get through this intact? Are people going to slip up and make mistakes?" That's all part of the excitement of doing it.
Do you have a Plan B in case of a major emergency or a hiccup?
Zadan: The only thing we have in terms of a Plan B is we have understudies for the actors. [But] not for Carrie [Underwood] or Steve [Moyer].
Meron: In New York, one day it's warm, then the next day is bitter cold. And that's when people tend to get ill. We are terrified of anyone getting the flu or a cold or a sore throat or whatever because you are going on live whether you are sick or well. So this is a scary time for us, praying that everyone stays healthy.
Was there any trepidation about working with NBC again after Smash?
Meron: Not at all. We love NBC; that's the one place that's still supportive of doing musicals and they were incredibly supportive of Smash and equally supportive of The Sound of Music.
What did you learn from your experience on Smash that changed your perspective on how to bring a musical to TV?
Meron: Smash and Sound of Music, there really is no comparison. They are two different skill sets. Also, with The Sound of Music we are dealing with classic material that's been tried and tested over time very, very successfully, so we know the material works. Nobody on this show has done something like this before, so there really is no comparison to doing scripted weekly television.
How faithful are you staying to the Broadway musical?
Meron: We are staying true to the way every word was written for the Broadway stage.
And not taking any liberties on specific characters or moments?
Meron: No. Exactly as written for Broadway.
Zadan: The only liberties are the interpretations of each role by each actor. Each actor is playing it the way they choose to play it, so that's what makes the character different, but the actual words that they are saying are the words that are in the script from the Broadway show.
You have been proactive in wanting to communicate that idea across, that this is a redo of the Broadway musical. In one of the previews, an actor even mentions that fact. Was that something both of you strongly felt you had to address right off the bat?
Meron: Yes, 100 percent. We agree with the people. We would never remake the movie -- ever -- so they are right. We shouldn't and we didn't.
What discussions have you had about ratings expectations?
Meron: It's not been a discussion but of course everybody wants it to do well. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't want it to do well. But there has been no discussion about ratings.
How do you think you will be feeling the morning of Dec. 6 after this is all over?
Zadan: Exhausted. We will be absolutely exhausted. Waiting for the ratings to come in. That's how we are gonna be the next day after the show.
If this does well, do you think the network will actively seek out more opportunities for live TV like this in the future?
Meron: What we are hoping is in success that we open the door to another kind of entertainment that can exist on TV. I think that the audience will discover, within the first few minutes of watching the show, that they are not seeing a TV version of the movie. They'll know right away it's The Sound of Music, but it's a different Sound of Music than they are accustomed to seeing on film. So any of the confusion that we've had earlier: Are they doing another movie or are they doing a remake of the movie? They'll know immediately that we are not doing a remake of the movie.
You also have the Bonnie & Clyde miniseries debuting a few days later on A&E, History and Lifetime. Fair to say it'll be an interesting few days for you guys?
Meron: There is no denying that that week is going to be very, very interesting and stressful.
Watch The Sound of Music "making-of" special below.
The Sound of Music airs live Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. on NBC.