Thursday NBC will broadcast a live production of "The Sound of Music" starring country star Carrie Underwood and "True Blood" actor Stephen Moyer, in a highly anticipated, much buzzed about spectacle – the first of its kind since CBS aired "Cinderella" in 1957. NBC has its financial motives for devoting three prime-time hours to Underwood belting out "The Hills Are Alive." And then there's of course the storied legacy of "The Sound of Music" itself, which, though set in pre- World War II Austria, has grown to become an American cultural classic. Here's a look at its journey from the real life von Trapp family to Thursday's national television event:
The Von Trapp Family Choir
"The Sound of Music" finds its roots in the real-life von Trapps, a family of 10 musically gifted children helmed by Austrian naval hero father Georg von Trapp and his nanny-cum-wife Maria Kutschera. They lost their fortune during the 1930s Depression and fearing persecution by German Nazis, left Austria, eventually ending up in America. There, they became very well known touring their musical act, singing classical music like Brahmms and Bach as well as Austrian folk songs.
"Die Trapp-Familie" and "Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika"
Those German filmmakers made two movies out of the von Trapp story: 1956's "Die Trapp-Familie" and its sequel 1959's "Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika." They were successful films – non-musical (though they did have music) dramatized accounts of the von Trapp's escape from Austria and arrival in America. A Paramount script reader stumbled across "Die Trapp-Familie" and thought that the role of Maria von Trapp would be perfect for his friend Mary Martin, a Broadway star.
"The Sound of Music" Musical With Mary Martin
Broadway producers Leland Hayward and Richard Halliday – also Martin's husband – were brought on to turn the German films and Maria von Trapp's autobiographies into a theatrical show. At first, Hayward and Halliday envisioned a production with the classical music the von Trapp Family was known to sing, plus one original song. They reached out to famed composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – who had worked with Martin on "South Pacific" — and the duo agreed that they would participate if they could write a whole new score of music. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse jumped onboard to write book for the production.
The show's creators stuck mostly with the original von Trapp story, but did take some creative liberties in bringing it to stage, along with the addition of the new music. The number of von Trapp children was reduced from 10 to seven. Captain von Trapp was characterized to be cold and unwelcoming to Maria at first – the real von Trapp was said to have welcomed Maria with open arms. The show's climatic escape from Austria had the von Trapps bravely climbing the Swiss Alps, instruments in hand, when they actually simply took the train. (An early draft of the show also had the von Trapps arriving at Ellis Island and performing for the agents there). And there was the casting of Martin herself, at the time well into her 40s, to play the youthful Maria.
The show opened in 1959 to mediocre reviews. While praising Rodgers and Hammerstein's music and the performance of its cast, the New York Times's Brooks Atkinson called it "conventional," "hackneyed," "stereotyped" and "cliche[d]."
"At the end of the 1950s shows were getting a little darker and a little more mature," says Laurence Maslon, author of "The Sound of Music Companion," about the history of "The Sound of Music" on stage and in film.
"No pun intended, but the cross it always had to bear was that there were nuns and little kids and lederhosen," he says.
Nevertheless, it was a hit – running nearly 1,500 performances. It also tied for the 1960 Tony for Best Musical and Martin also won for her performance. "I think one of the reasons it was so successful in 1959 was the fact that it was only 15 years since the war had ended and Nazis were still very much in the public consciousness," says musical theater expert Peter Filichia.