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The Hills Are Live!

We got an advance peek behind the scenes of NBC’s high-wire live version of ”The Sound of Music” starring Carrie Underwood

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Carrie Underwood is being hunted in a Long Island airplane hangar by a passel of Nazis wearing backward baseball caps and sweatpants. While it sounds like the premise for Eli Roth’s latest horror opus, the singer is actually deep in rehearsals for NBC’s upcoming broadcast The Sound of Music Live! Since we’re weeks away from the Dec. 5 airing at 8 p.m. sharp, no one is in their full costumes today, hence the casually dressed villains. Even Underwood, playing sunny nun and curtain-couture-maker Maria, is guiding the von Trapp children through the Austrian hills while sporting a slouchy black sweater, tights, and studded Uggs — not exactly a nun’s wimple.

Let’s get this out of the way: This is not a remake of the 1965 Julie Andrews-Christopher Plummer movie. Or so anyone involved with the new version of Music will tell you. It’s still the story of a young nun who becomes a governess to the seven children of the wealthy widower Captain von Trapp (played by True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer). But this Music is actually an adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1959 Broadway musical, which means there are some slight differences in songs (“My Favorite Things” is a duet between Maria and Mother Abbess, played by Private Practice‘s Audra McDonald) and staging (Liesl’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gazebo dance has been relocated to the woods). “I think a lot of people won’t know what it is till they tune in,” says exec producer Craig Zadan (Chicago). “We’re doing the play, not the movie, but we’re not doing it on a stage in front of an audience — we’re doing it on movie sets on a soundstage.” In keeping with the stage format, there will be no second takes if Underwood misses a high note — everything is 100 percent live. Says Moyer, “We expect our entertainment to be this glossy thing. I’m really excited about the fact that it isn’t that, and it’ll be what it will be on the night and that’s the only time it will ever be. And I think that’s exciting.”

Zadan and producing partner Neil Meron, Broadway vets who’ve also shepherded taped televised versions of Gypsy and Annie, were originally approached by NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt to do a TV version of Oklahoma! The pair also happen to have serious live-event chops (in March they’re producing the Oscar ceremony for a second time) and instead pitched him their idea of doing Music as a throwback to the live TV musicals of the 1950s like Peter Pan and Cinderella. Says Meron, “We felt like live events are really getting the eyeballs. It goes beyond people DVR’ing things because they want the immediacy of watching it as it happens.”

It also helps that they cast Underwood, one of the biggest country-pop stars around. “Carrie Underwood is Maria,” says Meron, who adds that the American Idol winner was their first choice for the role. Underwood agrees that she and the character have similarities. “She had this love for nature and this love for the things that God made, this beautiful outside, the mountains, the music, and I feel that,” says the Oklahoma native. The novice actress also knows that twirling on such hallowed Alpine ground is going to inspire criticism. “I get hate tweets and stuff like ‘You’re not Julie Andrews!'” she says. “I know I’m not. Nobody is, and I would never pretend that I was. I know my place.” But the supporting cast, which has been purposely stacked with Broadway ringers like McDonald, Laura Benanti (Baroness Elsa Schraeder), and Christian Borle (von Trapp’s scheming bestie Max), say that Underwood is more than up to the challenge. “We are all hyperaware that this is on her…. There’s no understudy,” says Borle. “And she came in the first day, totally memorized, totally ready.”

Though the rehearsal day winds down with no major hiccups, the cast knows all that matters is premiere night. Benanti jokes, “Yesterday somebody asked me, ‘How are you going to feel at 7:59 p.m. on December 5?’ and I was like, ‘Nervous.’ Then they asked me, ‘How are you going to feel at 11 p.m.?’ and I said, ‘Drunk.'”


Music Men Are Off to the Oscars
The day after The Sound of Music Live! airs, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan will be on a plane back to Los Angeles, shifting their focus to the 86th Academy Awards. The duo produced this year’s Seth MacFarlane-hosted show — the highest rated in three years — and are returning to lead the March 2 broadcast on ABC with host Ellen DeGeneres. They managed to fit the awards extravaganza into their jam-packed schedule, which includes Music, the Dec. 8-9 miniseries Bonnie & Clyde, MTV’s amusement-park soap Happyland, and the E! musical pilot Songbyrd. “The only reason we could do it was because they hired us immediately after the last Oscars,” says Zadan. “They usually hire the producer a couple months before, and then you’re hysterical, frantically putting it together.”

The pair are secretive about their plans for the show, but viewers can certainly expect laughs. Says Zadan, “Where last [time] the whole idea was to do all that music, and we had Seth, who sang, this year we have one of the great comedians, and we’re going to do a lot of comedy.”