The hills may be alive with the sound of music. But who knew? Those hills are in Bethpage.
Alps. Also an abbey full of singing nuns. Seven frolicking von Trapp kids. Even edelweiss. All just south of the Long Island Rail Road tracks.
Granted, they're indoors at Grumman Studios, the birthplace of Apollo lunar modules, now home to massive soundstages, where they're shooting "The Sound of Music Live!," NBC's hotly anticipated new version starring Carrie Underwood as Maria, "True Blood's" Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp, Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess, a host of Broadway veterans and those adorable kids -- one of whom is Southold native Ella Watts-Gorman. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic will air Thursday night at 8 -- live from Long Island.
At a recent rehearsal, Underwood sings the title song, walking amid shrubs and trees on a clutch of faux hills, as director Beth McCarthy-Miller chooses shots.
During the song, one camera pulls back, ripping at tree branches. Another casts a dark shadow. A third offers a glorious, golden-lit close-up, till a fourth swings in front of Underwood's face.
"Whoa, gotta change that," McCarthy-Miller says, chuckling. Come Thursday, of course, there'll be no do-overs, no understudies, in the first stage musical shot for live television since the 1950s. But the director, speaking to cast and crew, remains upbeat.
"Pretty good for a first time, folks."
TAKING A RISK
NBC has a lot riding on this one. The production boasts two directors (Broadway vet Rob Ashford, who worked with the cast on character, and McCarthy-Miller, who has helmed live shows including "Saturday Night Live") -- six lavish sets (Alps, abbey, and so on, constructed in a row, extending about a half-mile inside a hangar-like building) -- and 12 cameras (six to shoot a scene as another six maneuver into position to shoot the next scene, a leapfrogging dance requiring rehearsal just like the actors).
Plus one popular if inexperienced star.
"I've always been up for a challenge," says Underwood, an "American Idol" darling who's never performed in a musical. Not even in high school, back in Checotah, Okla.
"My school was so small, we didn't really have drama or things like that," she says.
Moyer, it turns out, sang early in his career (before his success in fangs) and connects with the show's title.
"It's not some glib four words -- the show is about the sound of music, how it can unlock people, change lives."
This "Sound of Music" may even change television.
Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan feel television viewers are wearying of so-called reality TV, and ready for something different.
They hope to bring back "appointment television," that nearly extinct tradition of a nation rushing home to catch a special show, enjoying a shared cultural moment, then jabbering about it the next day with friends. Thanks to DVRs, it rarely happens anymore.
WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Back in the 1950s, before videotape, live variety shows and dramas were standard fare.
There's a thrill to live performances. Anything can happen.
"We've timed everything -- costume and set changes -- around commercials," says music director David Chase. "They did it in much the same way back in the '50s.'' With one exception -- the orchestra played live. Here, it'll be prerecorded.
To hedge their bets, a pianist will play along for the entire show, so if the unthinkable happens and the orchestral track cuts out, the music will go on.
Even if all goes smoothly, expect surprises. This is the stage version, with a few different songs (no "I Have Confidence," which was written for the film) and plot points.
GETTING HER BIG BREAK
Back on set, awaiting a light cue, Underwood jokes with Watts-Gorman, 13, the Long Islander playing Louisa von Trapp. The two sing bits of The Ting Tings' pop hit "That's Not My Name."
The lanky eighth-grader caught the show-biz bug playing in various productions at Peconic Dunes, a camp on the North Fork. This is her big break.
"It took the whole bus ride from Southold to the city to get into character," she says, recalling her audition. Getting cast, meeting Underwood, dancing with Moyer -- it's all been like a dream.
"I'm excited it'll be live. Yeah, you can't really make a mistake, but I don't think anyone will. And if we do, I know how to fix it."
And how is that?
"Well, just . . . act like you made that mistake on purpose," she says. "It's OK if we mess up -- just don't break character."
And you thought live TV was dead...
Live TV today is pretty much relegated to news, sports, some talk shows and "Saturday Night Live." Occasionally other shows give it a go:
ROC (1992-93). The Fox sitcom's entire second season.
ER (1997). The Season 4 opener shot documentary-style.
THE DREW CAREY SHOW (1999, 2000, 2001). Three episodes, where Carey's cast of improv pros let loose.
WILL & GRACE (2005, 2006). Two episodes, one glitch: Hundreds of pills failed to pour from Karen's bathroom cabinet. "How the hell did they make 'King Kong' and we can't do this?" Eric McCormack quipped. Then the pills poured out.
THE WEST WING (2005). Newsman Forrest Sawyer moderated a presidential debate between "candidates" Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda.
30 ROCK (2010, 2012). A cinch for "SNL" alums Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan. Cameo-makers Paul McCartney and Brian Williams weren't too bad, either.