How do you solve a problem like middling ratings for your Thursday-night lineup? On Dec. 5, NBC’s answer was to stage an ambitious live adaptation of the 1959 Broadway version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music starring country superstar Carrie Underwood as aspiring nun Maria. It was a risky experiment — not seen since the live telecasts of the 1950s like Cinderella and Peter Pan — but it paid off big-time. More than 18 million viewers watched the three-hour show, garnering NBC its highest prime-time Thursday ratings since the 2009 finale of ER. “You take one of the leading artists in the country and you combine her with this family-friendly title and then you create this perfect storm,” says producer Neil Meron (Hairspray). But in addition to having built-in appeal, Music was hyped as an event that you had to watch live — and hopefully live-tweet. “That creates a sense of urgency, immediacy, a cliff-hanger kind of reaction, which is why people watch awards shows,” says Meron’s producing partner, Craig Zadan. (Speaking of awards shows: Perhaps it’s a good omen for the equally complex and equally live Academy Awards — airing on March 2 with host Ellen DeGeneres — which Meron and Zadan are overseeing for a second time.)
Reaction was fairly mixed when it came to the actual production, with some fans outraged at changes from the movie (No gazebo dance! No puppet show!) and underwhelmed by Underwood’s acting. The producers, though, say they have no regrets. “We think, considering what this young artist had to shoulder and being that it was her first experience doing something like this — we are so proud,” says Meron. The pair have had early talks with NBC, which has already indicated it will do another live musical next holiday season. “It’s so early,” says Meron. “We’re still bathing in the hills being live.” He adds, “We’ve discussed what we’re not going to do. And we’re definitely not going to do [the all-nude musical] Oh! Calcutta!“
Farewell to the Baroness
We said auf Wiedersehen to one of the most vivid supporting actors in the movie version of The Sound of Music this week: Eleanor Parker died on Dec. 9 in Palm Springs, Calif., at the age of 91. Her most famous role was as the cool, insinuating Baroness von Schraeder, who tried to hang on to Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp in the 1965 musical. By then the Ohio native had already been acting in movies for more than two decades and had collected three Oscar nominations, including one for her role as a jailed woman in the 1950 prison drama Caged. She costarred opposite Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable in her long career, but she’ll always be remembered as the woman who so elegantly didn’t get the guy.