Filmed musicals are not a new concept. In fact, the practice technically goes back to 1923 when the first musical short was filmed entitled A Musical Monologue. This lesser known original was followed by many classics from Animal Crackers with Shirley Temple to Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland and so on. We saw a decrease in the popularity of this in the late 20th century and early 21st century, but recently filmed musicals have made a comeback and in an entirely new way. Any filmed musicals that were made in that period tended to be animated films, but lately we’re seeing old classic musicals being revived with celebrity talent for seasonal television specials, sort of like in the old days.
Shortly after NBC’s first three successes, Fox jumped on the live musical on television train.
The first of its kind recently was The Sound of Music Live! with Carrie Underwood. Though Carrie Underwood was new to the acting and musical world, she was surrounded by top level Broadway talent from Audra McDonald to Laura Benanti to Christian Borle. Though this first attempt at filming a live musical for television wasn’t my favorite, it was significant in that it opened the door for those who don’t normally have access to live theatre and gave the production, an audience of millions; far more than they could bring into even the biggest theatre. Peter Pan Live! Followed shortly after which in my opinion was a great move. The story of Peter Pan has been adored for generations and putted a star studded cast together and the musical version on television raised awareness to the fact that musicals are a great way to re-tell our favorite stories. Similar to The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live! used popular television talent, like Girls’ Allison Williams and Broadway veterans like Taylor Louderman, Kelli O’Hara, and essentially all of the Newsies. In my opinion, Peter Pan Live! was even more successful than The Sound of Music Live! In December 2015, NBC followed with a wildly successful The Wiz Live! With Uzo Aduba, Amber Riley, and Shanice Williams.
Shortly after NBC’s first three successes, Fox jumped on the live musical on television train. Bringing to the table Grease: Live and incorporating a new element of a live audience into the frame. Though I wasn’t a big fan of it, I believe it was a great way to give the audience an immersive experience and to also create the feel of a more full high school. They moved audience members from sound stage to sound stage, and followed a golf cart during commercial breaks that quite literally broke the fourth wall and gave viewers a glimpse of behind the scenes. Their cast was one to rival, led by Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveitt. This gained the trust and approval of theatre buffs who worship Broadway leading man Tveitt and your average film and tv consumer who has enjoyed Ms.Hough in anything from Safe Haven to Rock of Ages. Just after, NBC combatted with Hairspray Live! which boasted stars like Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, and Kristen Chenowith. Recently, the internet has been going crazy over the up and coming line up. Fox recently announced Rent Live and A Christmas Story Live, another two brilliant choices. NBC combated that with Bye Bye Birdie Live! and Jesus Christ Superstar Live! Though NBC has seemed to pull back, I think that Jesus Christ Superstar is a brilliant idea because they are airing it during Easter which will no doubt bring in a bigger audience and the Christian demographic.
I think this ongoing healthy competition between NBC and Fox shows that there is an audience out there for live musicals and that means that there is promise in the future of live theatre which has decreased in popularity since the Golden Age. NBC and Fox’s work in musicals for TV has raised awareness to those who don’t normally go out to the theatre. I think this will be reflected not only in Broadway ticket sales, but Spotify cast album streams, regional theatre ticket sales, arts funding, and beyond. I look forward to seeing how this year’s performances will change the future of musical theatre. Rumor has it, ABC will soon join the race with Disney classics.