In the ‘50s and ‘60s, television was the major way most of the country was exposed to great stage productions featuring professional performers. Broadcast productions of theater shows such as “Peter Pan” or “Cinderella” drew massive ratings because it meant seeing a Broadway-style show from Any Street, USA.
The trend cooled for decades, with a shift to presenting musicals as made-for-television movies such as “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1995, “Annie” in 1999 and “The Music Man” in 2003. But, the networks have brought that theater feel back with a series of shows staged live (at least on the East Coast) in front of television cameras.
NBC has produced “The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz.” Next up will be “Hairspray.”
And Fox is jumping in with “Grease: Live,” airing 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31,” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Passion” in the future.
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Strong ratings are driving the trend. “The Wiz” drew 42% more viewers than “Peter Pan” and gave NBC its second-highest ratings night for scripted shows since the finale of “ER” in 2009. The highest rating came from the live telecast of “The Sound of Music.”
And, in the much coveted world of social media, “The Wiz” was, according to NBC research, the most social live special program, excluding sports and award shows.
Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, has learned a lot about bringing musicals to television with the first three efforts.
“The first one was really flying by the seat of our pants, not even knowing if we could pull it all technically, and the scale of it was really enormous. You get hopefully better and better creatively with each successive show,” Greenblatt says. “The first one was very hard to cast because it was a new thing and people didn’t know what it was and if it would work. I think by the time ‘The Wiz’ rolled around, it’s a beloved show in a lot of circles, and there were people calling us to be in it.”
It’s also nice to have that old-fashioned feeling of, ‘Let’s go home and all gather together and watch the show together.’
Dana Walden, the chairman and CEO of FOX Television Group, says FOX will only air certain kinds of musicals.
“They have to have something that feels FOX. We’re not out just looking for another musical. On ‘Grease: Live,” we have Tommy Kail, the director of ‘Hamilton,’ which is just spectacular,” Walden says. “He’s bringing all of that inventiveness and enthusiasm to ‘Grease: Live.’ Unlike some of the stage shows you’ve seen up to this point on broadcast, it’s not a proscenium show. It will go between three different stages.
The expanded set is not just to give the production a larger feel. Finding a place to have cameras that won’t get in the way of the live show, but capture the performance has clearly as possible, has been a struggle through the three NBC shows.
The cast of FOX’s “Grease: Live” includes Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, Carlos PenaVega, Carly Rae Jepsen, Keke Palmer, Kether Donahue, Jordan Fisher, Eve Plumb, Andrew Call and David Del Rio.
Kail says the nature of theater means that it’s never going to be as perfect as a scripted show or as unimpaired as a stage version.
“People start performing, and things morph and change. So you just have to prepare as best you can. But all of our friends that made ‘The Wiz’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Peter Pan’ all endeavored to do the same thing we did, which was to deliver an excellent show and to try to capture that spirit of being live.” Kail says. “So one of the things that we are really excited about with our show is that we get a chance to take this film and this stage play that we love so much, and was so important to all of us, and try to honor it and serve it up and find a new audience and delight the audience that had the same kind of affection for it that we did when we were first exposed to it.”
To that end, FOX’s “Grease” will draw from the original stage show plus the 1978 feature film starring John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John. That means tunes like “Magic Changes” and “Freddy My Love,” not seen in the movie, will be in the TV production.
To capture as much of the live feel, there will be 44 cameras used to broadcast the performance. Instead of worrying about the audience that will be viewing the performance getting in the way, Kail is staging it so that if there is a bleacher scene filled with audience members.
As Kail puts it, when doing a stage production for television, it is necessary to take the show completely apart and put it back together to fit the format. That started in the middle of November with rehearsals. The first weeks were used to allow the performers to develop their characters. In January, the process moved to working on the stages in front of the cameras.
TV audiences must deal with one thing that doesn’t affect a theatergoer: commercials. Attracting viewers is all part of the business of television. This creates multiple interruptions during the show. As long as the musicals air on basic network television, there will always be commercial breaks.
And there will always be theater.
“We all want to get together and sit around the campfire and have somebody tell us a story. Now, the campfire might be a 42-inch television in this instance, but it’s about coming together and galvanizing and having a community experience,” Kail says. “And we certainly have the benefit of getting to form a community here, and our hope is that it’s sharing with the kid in Spokane and the kid in Peoria.
I feel like it would be a wonderful world if they were doing revivals of plays and new plays live on television and that four, five, six times a year that we’re just part of this larger continuum, that ‘Broadway’ doesn’t have to be a bad word, that this can be something that’s not used to put something else in a box, and that it’s really about a celebration of live performance, whether it’s on theater or on television.
- 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, FOX (Channel 26.1)