Let me start out with a fact about myself: I LOVE musical theater. I grew up doing musicals in high school and college, and I listened to every cast album I had access to. One of my favorites? Cats. No judgement. Many television reviewers don’t seem to get musical theatre, which is fine because they are television reviewers. They are not fond of NBC’s recent attempts to bring musical theater to the masses.
There is a reason for that.
Peter Pan was bad.
I didn’t watch The Sound of Music last year because I am a huge fan of the 1965 movie, and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to watch it without over-judging it. Carrie Underwood is very talented, but Julie Andrews / Mary Martin she is not. Many of the complaints I heard, aside from the issue of Underwood not being a great actor, were issues that live theater always deals with. Things fall. Curtains don’t go up. People make mistakes. IT’S LIVE!
I was hopeful for Peter Pan because I thought Christopher Walken was a good choice for Hook, and I hoped my son would enjoy it because he loves Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Well, the movie lost me a few minutes in. It was Sslllllloooooowwwww. There was very little energy, except among members of the ensemble, and they dubbed the tap dancing, which didn’t even match up with the dubbed sounds.
However, I think NBC’s intent is lovely. Broadway musicals are not accessible to many, either because of price or distance. When schools need to make budget cuts, arts programs almost always go first. Event programming is fun too! Gathering around the TV with the whole family to watch something really special is a nice way to spend the holiday season.
Here are my ideas for future NBC live musicals:
1. Pick a musical that is known, but not overdone.
Peter Pan has been done a million ways from Sunday. There is a Disney treatment (without the same music) and the Mary Martin / Sandy Duncan / Cathy Rigby versions, all of which were parts of every musical kids’ childhood. There are ample chances for disappointment. While The Sound of Music has just the one movie version in addition to the stage show, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture (1965), and is one of the highest grossing films in America.
NBC is planning to air The Music Man next year (while Fox is going to produce Grease, which will probably sound like Glee). YES. THIS is the type of show it should try. People know it, since most high schools put it on every few years, but it can be easily made into a vehicle for someone.
2. Really do it live.
Don’t pre-record things. Find a way to make the tap dancing (or Marian the Librarian foot stomping) heard live. Encourage an energetic performance.
3. Cast Broadway stars
There are loads of people right in NYC (where NBC broadcasts these musicals from) who are full of real energy and talent and very accustomed to performing live 8 times a week. I feel like the ensembles come from this core, but cast more of the leads this way, please. Peter Pan‘s Smee / Mr. Darling is an alum of Legally Blonde, and it was evident in his performance.
4. Start at 7pm
11pm is late for most people, especially school age children. I realize the show will have to be three hours with commercials (and most musicals are kinda long), but you need to meet your audience half way. DVR’s work, but NBC is going for a live event.
5. Give people a reason to watch aside from hate-watching.
To be honest, most people without children who are watching are doing so only so they can bash it the next day at the Keurig machine. I don’t have a solution to this yet, but there has to be a way to increase expectations.
6. Film it like a movie or a live event, not both.
In live theatre, everyone’s expressions are exaggerated and movements are different than in film because the audience is so much further away. With a live TV event, energy is there with the camera right in the actors’ faces. It’s awkward.
There is another problem that NBC can’t really get around. Many of the classic musicals that are family friendly are also seriously outdated. Many articles have already noted the changes to Peter Pan to be more sensitive to Native Americans, but the gender relations are pretty pathetic, and kinda weird considering you have a young woman playing a perpetually young boy. For some reason, many of the “classics” take place between 1890 and 1914. 4 of the 5 high school musicals I did were set in that time period, including The Music Man. More modern “family friendly” musicals are just adaptations of movies (Elf, Shrek). Musicals that are compelling to the 18 – 49 demographic are too heavy for primetime network TV (see: Assassins, Urinetown, Company). It’s a complicated programming issue that has no single solution.
I want to see NBC continue this live musical idea, but they need to work on some of the core issues that made Peter Pan weak. Bringing more traditional forms of the arts to television is an important public service, in a way, and I hope NBC doesn’t lose their nerve.