Are the Television Renditions of Musicals Really Necessary?

Nina Ottesen, Staff Writer

Hairspray Live!, Rent: Live, Grease: Live! You’ve probably heard or even seen these television renditions of the classic musicals. People have had mixed feelings about these TV interpretations of these pieces of theater history. Some like them, though others feel that FOX, ABC, and NBC are simply looking for more viewers. However, there are some surprisingly well-done television musical specials, such as Grease: Live! which was met with overall rave reviews. It’s easy to understand why. There was some amazing acting, wonderful choreography, and beautiful singing. So why do so many people resent these live television events? And are they really necessary?

One of the most notorious TV musical renditions was NBC’s Peter Pan Live from way back in 2014. What made this live event so terrible? Entertainment Weekly’s Maureen Lee Lenker describes it as “miscast and woefully low energy.” She also rates it number 9 out of 10 on her list of live TV musicals. Another example of a poorly executed TV musical was NBC’s The Sound Of Music Live back in 2013. The main problem with this event was Carrie Underwood’s poor acting ability. She can sing, but it doesn’t mean she can act. However, Audra McDonald’s “goosebump-inducing” performance of  “Climb Every Mountain” gave the musical a leg up, placing it at number 8 on Lenker’s list. 

Although there are a fair amount of poorly-received TV musicals, there were also many that were met with positive reviews. One live TV musical that actually sat well with people was Grease: Live! Coming in at number 2 on her list, Lenker says that Grease: Live! was a “high-energy affair that captured the vitality of live theater.” Vanessa Hudgens’ rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” pulled on many heartstrings, and wouldn’t let go. Now, which TV musical placed number 1 on Lenker’s list? The answer is Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert. Lenker said that NBC turned this simple rock opera into one of the most “vital and electric live musicals to date.” She says that the best part about this live musical was the fact that NBC cast actual Broadway actors and actresses instead of film and television stars. Lenker says that Brandon Victor Dixon “stole the show” with his “heartbreaking, anguished portrayal as Judas.” She also fittingly calls the lighting and set design for the ending a “religious experience.”

So why have so many live TV renditions of musicals failed while others knock it out of the park? Perhaps it’s poor casting. Maybe it’s poor choreography or bad set design. I think the most likely explanation is companies losing touch with the audience. I mean, no one ASKED for The Spongebob Musical: Live On Stage!, but that’s what we got. It wasn’t a complete failure either. Ethan Slater’s version of Tom Kenny’s iconic role of Spongebob Squarepants did not disappoint, and Jai’Len Christine Josey had shockingly soulful and angelic vocals in the role of Mr. Krabs’ daughter Pearl. However, there were some flaws with the show. It was obvious that this show was for kids, and, instead of being funny and lovable, Spongebob’s best friend Patrick just seemed like his only qualities were being food-obsessed and lazy. Overall, the musical was charming and funny, adding in classic Spongebob quotes such as “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” and “I went to college!” It was a surprisingly delightful experience that proved that TV renditions of musicals can somewhat live up to their predecessors. 

So are TV renditions of musicals really necessary? In my opinion, no. However, they bring new life and appreciation to something that is already so well-known and loved. CBS and NBC can keep on bringing us stuff like Hairspray: Live!, we’ll just be here to enjoy the show.