Some Thoughts on Live TV Musicals

rent-03We’re living in a golden age of the Live TV musical. Every year since 2013, we’ve gotten a new live broadcast of a famous musical. There are usually star-studded, filled to the brim with well-known actors from the stage and screen, and no expense is spared when it comes to the set and costumes. Why, then, are these productions usually met with reactions that range from indifference to hatred? Do we live in a society that finds itself too cynical to enjoy a good old musical? I don’t think so. I think the problem lies less with the audience and more with the creative team and the producers of these productions. In general, each of these productions has had at least one of four problems that result in their less-than-stellar reception: the choice of musical was questionable, the cast wasn’t great, the live audience (or lack thereof), or the camerawork. The teams behind each of these productions had their hearts in the right place, but nearly all of them fell into one of those traps, resulting in audience derision.

Choice of Musical
For the first three years, or so, of this Live TV musical renaissance, the musicals chosen were popular family-friendly ones. 2013 brought us The Sound of Music – based on the script for the original stage production, not the film -, 2014 brought us Peter Pan – based on the 1954 musical, with an updated script -,  and 2015 brought us The Wiz – based, again, on the original stage version (with an updated script) rather than the film. Each of those musicals was fairly well known, with there either being films of them that already existed (and were beloved) or previous successful live broadcasts from the ’50s and ’60s. This opened those shows up to comparisons with their original, beloved, source material. None of those shows, however, were trying to replicate that beloved material. Both The Sound of Music and The Wiz were adapting their respective stage versions, a fact which many viewers were unaware of given the popularity of the film versions. Of these shows, The Wiz was most successful – in large part due to the original show and film being slightly less popular than The Sound of Music – and having a much better cast than either of the other two shows. I understand the desire to produce shows that can attract the biggest audience possible, but you also open yourself up to a lot of comparisons that may not be entirely fair. There are plenty of popular, family-friendly musicals that haven’t had massively successful film adaptations that could be produced.

In later years, we’ve gotten more adult fare – though still popular shows in their own right – Grease, Hairspray, A Christmas Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent. Again, each of these shows had a successful film to be compared to, though Hairspray, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent were never quite as popular in film form as they were on stage. Of these shows, the most well-received were Grease, Hairspray, and Jesus Christ Superstar – but this was more due to the cast and the production itself than to the source material. Rent and A Christmas Story were the least successful of the entire bunch. Uncoincidentally, they both had similar issues in their adaptations. Both shows featured significant changes from the source material most were familiar with. A Christmas Story was a popular film that was adapted into a moderately successful Broadway show, and that Broadway show is what was broadcast. The thing is – most of the fans of A Christmas Story had no interest in a musical version of the film and found the whole thing to be disappointing and lacking the spirit of the original. Rent had to be censored quite a bit in order to air on Network TV. In addition to the censorship, a lot of other changes were made to the libretto of the famous show, throwing the dedicated fans the show has cultivated for a loop while sanitizing the edges of what was considered an edgy, counter-cultural show. Neither show was a particularly good choice for a Live TV Musical. Rent, in particular, was just too adult for primetime Network TV, and as a result, had to be censored to the point that it was often laughable. If you have to change a show that much in order to broadcast, perhaps you should choose a different show. It looks like NBC is about to repeat this problem with their broadcast of Hair later this spring, another show that will require significant changes in order to be suitable for air. In this case, I understand the desire to prove that you can do shows that aren’t just family friendly, but you also should make sure the shows you’re picking don’t have to be butchered in order to be aired.

The Cast
All of these musicals have been filled with a mixture of well-known talent from the stage and screen, alongside lesser-known talent. And, almost without fail, every instance of this stunt casting has been received poorly, due to the fact that the producers either cast a singer who can’t act (Carrie Underwood, John Legend) or an actor who can’t sing (Christopher Walken, Valentina). The more successful shows (TheWiz, Grease, Hairspray, and Jesus Christ Superstar) have managed to cast a mixture of well-known talent and stage talent, all of whom were well-suited for their roles and, for the most part, could actually sing and dance. I understand the need to cast well-known people who can attract an audience that might not watch a musical, but you do need to make sure the people you’re casting can actually do justice to the material they’re performing. Yes, it would be easy (and perhaps better) to just cast a bunch of Broadway talent to do these shows, but a lot of people won’t watch something like this unless there’s a name they know attached to it. With that in mind, there are plenty of well-known screen actors who can act and sing – and there are plenty of well-known musicians who can sing and act – so, if one has to stunt cast with a celebrity, they should probably seek out celebrities who can definitely sing and act instead of banking on their strength in one of those talents being enough to outweigh their weakness in the other.

The Live Audience
The first several productions had no live audience watching the production. The whole performance was just done in an empty studio in front of the cameras. This robbed those first few productions of a whole lot of energy that was desperately needed. Audiences are an important part of live theatre, especially musicals, and the actors feed off the energy given to them by the audience. Later shows have incorporated a live audience into the proceedings with some mixed results. Grease and Hairspray only really let the audience be heard in applause after certain songs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but both shows have a lot of jokes that work better with laughter from the audience than they do with nothing. Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent featured an audience that could be seen and heard the entire time (partially due to their staging as more of a concert and less of a live film). The problem here was that the audience was too loud. They obviously weren’t told what is and isn’t appropriate behavior for a live theatrical audience as they screamed and clapped through a number of different songs, often getting so loud that they drowned out the vocals of the performers singing. While their energy was palpable, they ultimately proved to be a distraction as they were out of control and drawing attention to themselves more than they were giving attention to the performers. I think these live TV musicals need to embrace live audiences. As I said, live audiences are integral to theatre. But, they also need to exhibit some kind of control over the audience. The audiences shouldn’t be encouraged to scream every time a performer comes near them or holds a note for a few seconds. Applause and cheering should be saved for between songs. The appropriate reaction during scenes and musical numbers is laughter. The audience should be present, yes, but they should not be distracting.

The Camerawork
All of these live musicals have had some ambitious technical aspects. The Sound of MusicPeter Pan, Grease, Hairspray, and A Christmas Story all tried to be immersive experiences that had more in common with live films than live theatre. The latter three, plus Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, featured some innovative camerawork designed to bring the audience at home as into the action as possible. This worked better in some cases (Grease, Hairspray) and worse in others (A Christmas Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent). Like the audience, the camerawork is something that is important and should be played with, but it should never be played with to the point that it distracts from what’s actually happening. All three of those shows featured camerawork that was in motion nearly constantly, swinging around actors and moving all over the stage. It’s as though the directors didn’t trust the material to be strong enough to hold the audience’s interest, so they felt the need to keep the camera constantly moving as a trick to keep people engaged. This didn’t work, though, as too often the camera movements distracted from the scenes. You could never tell what was going on because the camera wouldn’t stay still long enough for you to get an understanding of what you were actually watching. I applaud the attempt at doing something more interesting with the camera than just filming a production proscenium style, but the camera work should aid and elevate the material, not distract from it. The directors need to be able to tell when a scene benefits from intense camerawork and when it would benefit from moments of stillness.

All in all, I love that live TV musicals seem to be making a comeback. I love theatre and I love musical theatre and I love most of these musicals, in general. But, all of these productions have had some major problems that have inhibited them from being as successful as they could be. Whether it was the selection of musical, the cast, the audience (or lack thereof), or the camerawork, each show has indulged in one of those issues, and each show’s success has been impacted by them. I love live TV musicals and I want them to succeed, so I really just wish the creative teams and producers behind these shows would take the time to really think about the shows they’re choosing, think about who they’re casting (and make sure they pick people, famous or not, who can actually sing and act), figure out what to do about the live audience, and really put some thought into how they use the camera. I feel that if they do all of these things, they are far more likely to have a successful production than if they ignore one or more of them.

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