Musical theatre has the power to transform lives. It is perhaps one of the most underrated and honest forms of storytelling that still exists in a world that is overflowing with entertainment and media. True theatre, at its core, is beautiful, natural and moving. Songs tell a story that words can’t, aided by real human connection. Despite the magic of live theatre, there are numerous movie musicals (think Mamma Mia, Into the Woods and a number of classic Disney productions) that have done just the same to audiences abroad.
Yet, it seems that the mysterious hybridization that is the live TV musical continually fails to connect with audiences. It even goes as far as to make a mockery of itself within localized theatre communities. Nearly a week after the airing of Fox’s RENT Live! (which happened to be not live at all), NBC has cancelled their spring production of Hair Live!.
The cancellation comes after RENT Live! received the lowest ratings ever for a televised musical, which may be due to the fact that Rent isn’t mainstream enough to be adapted for a wide audience. Now, NBC is looking into getting the rights to shows with a more “wide appeal” than those like RENT and Hair.
Now, I am all for bringing musical theatre to those who aren’t as passionate about it as current fans may be. But there is more to the problem of live TV musicals than the musicals themselves and their all-star casts. It is instead the formula itself that is unique to televised musicals, that fails to connect with both theatre-goers and the average viewer.
Consider the set-up of both Grease Live! and RENT Live!. Producers of both shows attempted to bring in a live audience immersed in the filming of the show itself. However, for whatever reason, there is no requirement for these audience members to abide by any kind of theatre etiquette. Within the first ten minutes of the opening number of Rent, viewers at home felt like they were watching a rock concert – not because of Larsorock-infused music but because of the screaming fans surrounding the stage. Grease Live! was no different – the audience was even more immersed in the set. For viewers, a live studio audience becomes distracting and removes them from the world that is created.
Not all live recorded musicals do this though. The PBS production of Falsettos was a filmed version of the musical on the Lincoln Center stage, which proved to be a much better alternative. As theatre-lovers might say, it was like watching a professionally filmed bootleg. It was easier to focus on and included a cast that was tied to its original Broadway run.
The casting of televised musicals, though accessible to mainstream viewers, often fails to intrigue the theatre community in the same way. Theatre-lovers are looking for talents they know and love, but with a strong emphasis on commercialization, the casting for live musicals has little to do with the theatre community itself.
In tandem with this, RENT Live! failed to have any understudies, causing the network to air the dress rehearsal of the show after lead actor Brennin Hunt (playing Roger) broke his foot. In any normal theatre production, there would have been swings and understudies available, for whatever reason this was not the case.
Additionally, when producers choose shows like Rent, there also are complications around censorship. Rent is raunchy and bohemian, something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with prime time TV, and devout fans feel disappointed about the changes in lyrics. Though censorship may be inevitable with televised musicals, there could be a stronger solution than changing lyrics or omitting parts altogether.
There may be no way to perfect the hybridized TV musical and find a happy medium for average viewers and theatre-lovers, but there are certainly other avenues to explore. The beauty of theatre lies in the creativity and innovation that it presents and accepts wholeheartedly. Instead of letting the TV musical continually be a flop, the basis in which they exist must be re-evaluated and re-invented. Maybe then, it would be possible to open the minds of others and encourage them to enjoy some of the most iconic pieces of musical theatre that history has to offer.
Featured Image via Variety