By Jill Serjeant
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Producers of a new version of the Oscar-winning musical "The Sound of Music," set for U.S. television next week, knew it would be a sacrilege to try and re-make the beloved 1965 movie classic starring Julie Andrews.
And American country singer Carrie Underwood, who will star as the aspiring nun who brings song into the home of a strict Austrian widower, says she cringes when she hears the word "re-make."
So when the lights go up on the live, televised version of "The Sound of Music" on NBC on December 5, audiences will see a few twists to some of their favorite things, and a lonely goatherd or two in an unusual place.
That's because producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have gone back to the stage show first seen in 1959 for their unique version that will be seen in a format, live television, not used for about 50 years.
"You would never, ever contemplate doing a re-make of the movie of 'The Sound of Music' because it's a classic. It's perfect. It would be sacrilege. It would be huge mistake to even contemplate it," Zadan said in an interview.
"We thought if we did the stage show, not on a Broadway stage but on movie sets, it would be something unique, a hybrid ... It is an extraordinary experiment. The TV audience is going to see something live that has never been done in this generation," he added.
Underwood, 30, who made her name by winning the TV singing show "American Idol" in 2005 and is now one of the biggest stars in country music with hits like "Jesus, Take the Wheel." She plays Maria von Trapp, the lead role played by Andrews in the popular film.
"True Blood" TV actor Stephen Moyer plays the captain with seven children who leaves Austria rather than take a job with Hitler's Navy on the eve of World War Two. The cast also features award-winning Broadway stars Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess), Laura Benanti (Elsa Schrader) and Christian Borle (Max Dettweiler).
"The Sound of Music" won 5 Oscars. Though Andrews was nominated for best actress but did not win, she did win the Golden Globe award. The movie is one of the top 5 highest-grossing films worldwide of all time.
Zadan and Meron say that fans familiar with the musical could be in for a few surprises.
Not only is "The Lonely Goatherd" sung during a thunderstorm rather than "My Favorite Things," as in the movie, but the stage show has a slightly darker tone, with more emphasis on the looming Nazi threat.
"This version does have all the things that audiences love about the film, but they are presented in a new way for most people," said Meron.
"It brings out different values. The stage show has more substance regarding the encroaching Nazis," he added.
Underwood, who has little acting experience, has been rehearsing since late September.
She arrived with her lines already memorized but has been working with a dialect coach - not to sound more Austrian but to even out what she calls her U.S. southern twang.
"I am from Oklahoma. I live in Tennessee. I sing country music, sometimes words really slip out sounding like where I am from," she said. "I am trying to sound as un-twangy as I can sound."
Underwood admits to some nerves about being compared to Andrews, but hopes that audiences will see the new show as a different way to fall in love with "The Sound of Music."
"I hope people realize that we are not re-creating the movie. I hear that word and it makes me cringe. The movie does not need to be re-made," Underwood said.
Zadan and Meron, who also produced the 2013 Oscar ceremony show as well as movie musicals of "Chicago" and "Hairspray," said Underwood was their first choice to play Maria because of her age, crossover appeal and vocal ability.
For TV audiences, the show will be like watching a live movie with no lip synching and without an audience on the set, they said.
If successful, they hope it will revive the live TV musical tradition that was popular in the 1950s but which has fallen away in an era of tight budgets, reality fare and programming to niche audiences.
"It's a show you want to watch live - if someone trips and falls, or hits a bad note or forgets their lines, you are going to see it," said Zadan.
"We have taken on something that is really exciting, and we are thrilled to death, and also scared to death."
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Philip Barbara)