Television seems to go through their favoritism to producing musicals in as many fits and starts as the movies have since the official end of the movie musical era. In the earliest days of TV, doing musical productions on TV was still a major part of all shows, considering musicals were still in at the movies. Musical variety shows were also ubiquitous on the primetime schedule during the 1950s and up through the 1970s. Even if the song and dance numbers were brief, the sense of the musical was always at the heart and soul of television. And that sometimes translated into full two-hour productions made exclusively for the small screen.
Some of those are still available on DVD today, like “Cinderella” written by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Also, the original TV adaptation of “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin is still available on DVD to give anybody a feel for the original TV musical sensibility from that era. Once the 1980s arrived, much of this became extinct and lasted until the 1990s when a few musical TV productions started again. We saw Bette Midler in an excellent TV adaptation of “Gypsy” during this time, plus new adaptations of “Bye, Bye Birdie”, “Annie”, plus a remake of “Cinderella” produced by the late Whitney Houston.
This continued off and on up to the mid-2000s with various network musical adaptations, some of which didn’t garner the best ratings. Since the late 2000s, the network musical adaptation sputtered out once again. Not until 2013’s “The Sound of Music, Live!” played on NBC did the network musical become a resumed major event. In fact, it brought it back to the 1950s and ’60s level when it was something everybody watched at once rather than becoming a DVR event weeks after the fact.
With quick turnaround on getting it on DVD and the soundtrack on CD, it’s become a new cottage industry that’s lacked on movie screens. Why is it that the renaissance in musicals seems to work better on a TV screen now than in a movie house?
The Movies May Try to Catch Up on Musicals
Now that “Jersey Boys” will be coming to movie theaters later this year, perhaps Broadway adaptations will finally get back to the big screen after one recent success with “Les Miserables.” By then, NBC will be airing a new version of “Peter Pan”, and Fox will be airing a live, three-hour adaptation of “Grease.” It all seems to be saying that people prefer seeing musicals conveniently in their homes than paying to see one in the theater. For those who don’t go to Broadway shows, you can see the appeal, especially when the rest of the country watches the Tony Awards each year and sees what they’re missing.
But the real reason why musicals seem to work better on TV may be the “Glee” factor. They’ve set a new TV pattern of seeing musical numbers performed on a TV screen, and those who’ve come of age in the last five years are now used to that. Only the largest musical spectacles manage to make it to the big screen like “Les Miserables.” Upcoming “Jersey Boys” may not necessarily be called a spectacle, which makes you think that it could have been better as a live network event rather than big screen production.
Considering most musicals we’re seeing on TV are all remakes, having them on TV helps give a deliberate delineation between the remakes from their original big-screen counterparts. Audiences likely appreciate this, especially those who remember seeing the original musical adaptations on the big screen from decades ago. Even better, the TV remakes take from the original Broadway shows, enabling audiences who’ve never been to Broadway something different.
Likely, the upcoming “Peter Pan” and “Grease” will offer songs that were only performed in the original stage versions and known primarily to the nerdiest of Broadway trivia experts.
This kind of experience also brings back a sense of TV communion that’s been lost in the age of Netflix. The act of everyone in the family watching something at the same time still seems to survive during rare events like these musicals. It’s based on the assumption of a family member not binge-watching a TV show on a mobile device while dancing and singing along to “Grease.”