The enormous ratings for last week’s live version of “The Sound of Music,” which reached 18.6 million viewers, have NBC’s top entertainment executive pushing the button on a follow-up.
Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC’s entertainment division, said Monday that the network would mount another live production next year for the holidays that would be led by the “Sound of Music” executive producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. In a telephone interview, the three men said they had begun work on selecting another musical. Greenblatt said they were “circling a couple of titles” that fit their prerequisites: family-friendly Broadway classics with a lot of familiar songs.
“All weekend, people have been calling us and emailing us,” Greenblatt said. “Rights holders of musicals have said, ‘Please do one of our shows.’ We’re excited to try it again.”
And that probably means more than once. Greenblatt said there were at least a handful of titles the network believed it could present, making live musicals an annual holiday event.
“There’s enough to do a handful of these over the next years, if we keep increasing the learning curve,” he said. “There may be a little bit of a phenomenon to the first one of these. Who knows what happens Year 2, 3 or 4. But you’ve got to have events. I think we could do this again — and again and again.”
The next project should not take as long to prepare, Greenblatt said. “We worked on this one for at least 18 months,” he said. “Now that we have done it once, we don’t need 18 months again. We know a lot about how to do it.”
One crucial element to the success of “The Sound of Music,” Meron said, was securing Carrie Underwood, the country music star who played Maria, the role made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1965 movie. “She really delivered her audience, her fan base,” Meron said. The executives said the ratings were three times what they had predicted.
That was a clear reason the producers pursued Underwood, despite her thin acting résumé. “I’m not sure almost 20 million people would have come out for a lot of other names,” Greenblatt said. He noted that other stars widely suggested as better casting choices than Underwood, like Anne Hathaway, would not have set aside the 10 months required to prepare for the live performance.
Underwood also bore the brunt of the attention, some of it harsh, directed toward the show. A lot of that came from live commentary on social media sites. Zadan said that no matter who was cast, people “were all going to say, ‘How dare you compete with Julie Andrews?’”
Despite that criticism, the producers extolled the value of social media.
“Social media played a pivotal role in the success of the show,” Zadan said, noting Twitter and Facebook traffic “that lasted the entire performance and beyond.”
Of course, a good portion of that consisted of snarky comments about Underwood’s acting abilities and about distractions like ambient noise in the studio and accompaniment that was too loud. Professional critics also took some shots — Alessandra Stanley, chief television critic for The New York Times, wrote that the performance “felt muted and a little sad” — though many, even in picking apart some elements, congratulated NBC for its willingness to try something challenging.
Typical was a review on The Daily Beast, by Kevin Fallon, who wrote, “It’s the least we can do to drop any cynicism over the project and harsh reaction to the execution of it and appreciate the huge gamble and undertaking it was to reanimate those mountains, and how fun it was to — even without Julie Andrews and even if it was kind of a mess — be twirling on them again.”
Meron said, “When you have something this big, you expect a little snark.”
Greenblatt also noted: “There is no snarkier universe than the Broadway world. It just sort of invites it. It’s OK. I’d rather have people deeply engaged than ignoring it. Somebody I once worked for said to me once, ‘Everybody hated it but the audience.’ And I’ll take that.”