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Let's Geek Out Over Live TV Musicals

Date: Oct 28, 2019

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Christina Trivigno, TDF's Director of Digital Strategy and a bona fide theatre nerd.

Today's topic: Live TV musicals -- which ones floundered, which ones went swimmingly and our hopes for The Little Mermaid Live!

Raven Snook: With The Little Mermaid Live! coming up next week (Tuesday, November 5 at 8pm on ABC, just in case you're not as Disney-obsessed as we are), it's the perfect time to talk about live TV musicals. It's hard to believe the trend only kicked off six years ago, with Carrie Underwood headlining The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. (The hate was alive for that one.) The Little Mermaid Live! will be the tenth live musical broadcast on network TV, and so much has changed since that first one -- mostly for the better in my opinion. Even though I've enjoyed some better than others (and I may have made snarky comments on social media about a few), overall it's great for the industry and for fans. These live TV musicals allow audiences everywhere to get a sense of what makes live performance so magical. Have you been watching since that first one?

Christina Trivigno: I wasn't into it at first. I didn't watch The Sound of Music and I didn't watch Peter Pan Live! either. But I was quite fond of Grease Live!, Hairspray Live and Rent Live. I think I'm probably too attached to the movie of The Sound of Music, so I skipped that one out of fear, and Peter Pan is just not my particular cup of tea. I'd already seen multiple incarnations of Grease, Hairspray and Rent, so I was probably more open to seeing them taken in new directions.

I do wonder what made the networks want to do these. Was it the success of America's Got Talent-type shows, which often feature singing, or do we think the casting shows for Legally Blonde and Grease played a part? Those seem like a lifetime ago though.

Raven: OMG they were! But hey, they gave us two Broadway stars: Laura Osnes, who won that Grease: You're the One That I Want! reality competition, and Tony winner Lena Hall, who got booted off Legally Blonde: The Musical – The Search for Elle Woods early. Somehow I always figured the popularity of Glee helped spawn these live TV musicals, even though that was a prerecorded show. But I think they mainly started because then NBC entertainment head Robert Greenblatt, who's also a Broadway producer, really wanted to do them. He saw them as family-friendly must-see TV events. And despite the poor reviews of the inaugural one, The Sound of Music was a hit with viewers. In fact, it's the highest rated live TV musical to date. I hate to admit this, but that live Sound of Music was actually my daughter's first experience with that musical.

Christina: She never even saw the iconic Julie Andrews movie?! I'm shocked! I’m going to have to call child protective services on you! Definitely NOT the way I’d introduce a kid to such a classic.

Raven: I know, but it had good things. OK, a good thing: Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess. Her "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is everything! NBC took the clip off YouTube, but you can watch her sing it at D.C.'s Kennedy Center. Do it -- I promise you'll get chills.

I admit I didn't make it all the way through Peter Pan, a musical I am shockingly unfamiliar with beyond its well-known songs. (Somehow, I managed to miss all of Sandy Duncan's tours.) Meanwhile Grease is a show I know very well, so I turned it on assuming I'd loathe it. Happily, I was wrong. There's no question that the addition of the live studio audience -- which should have been obvious from the outset, after all it's theatre!!! -- completely changed the energy. Also, the casting was great, especially Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, which I did not expect, and Hamilton director Thomas Kail really knew what he was doing.

The only other one I loved was Jesus Christ Superstar. Although it felt more like a concert, it was beautifully sung and staged. All the others you mentioned had good and bad points -- and don't forget The Wiz, which I liked overall. But to me, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar are the ones to aspire to.

Christina: I think it's interesting that they moved from The Sound of Music and Peter Pan to Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hairspray, etc. I think it says a lot about who is watching. The Sound of Music and Peter Pan probably appeal to an older audience. So maybe they're course correcting for younger viewers with the newer shows. Rent is certainly the type of show you fall in love with as a young theatre fan. Of course, that whole event got derailed when the actor playing Roger broke his foot during the filmed dress rehearsal, which ended up being the footage they aired. I was thrilled Aaron Tveit was in Grease as Danny. The star casting can be fun, but I loved seeing a theatre person in the lead on that one. Harvey Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning role in Hairspray live on TV was another great one. He was so much better than John Travolta was in the movie version -- but that's a complaint for another day. Jesus Christ Superstar was also excellent. I watched that one twice.

Raven: Why was Jesus Christ Superstar so great? Was it the cast? The concert-like feel? I can't imagine The Little Mermaid working concert-style as the lavish undersea and royal castle settings are part of the fun. This live musical is a bit different as a choice since it started as a movie, not as a stage show, and it was a Broadway flop, at least in Disney terms. Did you see it on stage? They used Roller Blades (really Heelys) to simulate swimming.

Christina: I did see it and was disappointed in the staging. The Heelys were probably the least of my complaints. There's a line in "Part of Your World" when she's singing about all the items she has from above the sea: "You want thingamabobs? I got twenty" and there were literally 20 things on the set. It was so sad.

I'm definitely curious as to how they plan to address the underwater aspect of the story. I want the sets and space to be interesting. I think Hairspray did that well.

Raven: I read they're planning to play footage from the film for the dialogue scenes and that only the songs will be live, with the actors seemingly bringing the movie to life. This makes me realize how different this undertaking is from all the previous live televised musicals.

I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas Live at the Barclays Center, which was a similar setup: The movie played, and then during the songs they cut the audio feed and a live orchestra and the original voice actors performed the numbers. And they did The Little Mermaid that way at The Hollywood Bowl. I'm wondering if this really is a new genre they're spawning here...

Christina: I wouldn't say it's new; I'd say it's really old. They're giving it the Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast treatment!

Raven: Hahahaha! Yes, and televising it to millions.

Christina: I've seen other movies get this sort of treatment, too, like The Princess Bride, which isn't even a musical, but it's a total cult classic with fans who know every word.

So are we thinking they're going to show the movie for dialogue and fade to a set for the songs? Or will both be visible? I'm not sure that article made it clear.

Raven: I heard they're also incorporating some of the numbers that were written for the Broadway musical and weren't in the movie at all. So I'm guessing that yes, when a song comes up, they'll switch to the set and the live actors.

Christina: Wow, that's going to be interesting. I wonder if that will alienate the audience members who only know the movie.

Raven: Or maybe it will intrigue them because it's new material. This actually makes me more excited to see it because clearly it won't be about duplicating the movie or the show. It's going to be its own thing.

Christina: More power to them for experimenting for sure. I'm excited, I just don't know being the theatre nerds we are if we're the majority audience. I think it's a common problem with movies turned into longer musicals that fans of the original wonder, why did they add a bunch of other songs that I don't know? People feel ownership of the source material.

Raven: That's true. Well, I know one aspect of The Little Mermaid Live that's going to be more like the movie than the show: Ursula. As a plus-size gal myself, I am so happy they're bringing curvy Ursula back, and I think Queen Latifah's going to be fabulous in the part. Even though I love Sheri Renee Scott, I was pretty peeved that someone so thin played Ursula on Broadway. Do not mess with our zaftig villains dammit! I think the casting of the project overall is amazing. I adored Auli'i Cravalho's voice in Moana and she was pretty much the only thing I liked about that terrible TV series Rise.

Christina: The pictures look good. You can work out who everyone is without knowing who's playing who, except maybe Shaggy. That one takes the most liberty.

Raven: It's true, he does not look like a crustacean. So, after this airs, which musical would you like to see get the live treatment next? I'd love to see Cabaret, even though I know it won't happen due to inappropriate content / lack of brand awareness. Fiddler on the Roof actually could work as it's family-friendly and very well-known.

Christina: I mean Kinky Boots is a fun musical that I'd like to see reach a wider audience via TV, but I'm not sure it has the name recognition that most of the other offerings had. I suppose Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat could be a natural choice after the success of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Raven: Ah, if only we had a TV network to program.


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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