What should we think about live televised productions of musicals? Are they helping the theatre world, or creating more problems?
The beauty of these televised productions lies in their ability to bring theatre to the masses. The question is whether this is a healthy, helpful exposure, or if it is unknowingly creating a distaste for the art.
Since 2013, NBC has produced The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz, and Hairspray. Fox produced Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
When producing these specials, the network searches for big names to draw big ratings. Rather than searching for the best actor for the part, they search for the best name for the numbers. While Carrie Underwood may have garnered viewers, she was not cut out to play the iconic role of Maria. Similarly, in Hairspray we saw Ariana Grande in a shaky portrayal of Penny Pingleton. Casting these stars offers a bit of sparkle to catch your eye, but they lack the depth from more experienced theatrical performers. These specials could be used as an opportunity for talented up and coming Broadway stars to gain more exposure. Or, as a chance for seasoned veterans to show us how it’s done. Instead, we have a mix of semi-talented and semi-famous stars reaching to deliver these iconic shows.
Another issue the television formats presents is an almost paradoxical one. Usually. when a play or musical is produced on the stage, it must stay on said stage for the whole production. The dimensions of the world created are bound to the dimensions of that particular, physical stage. However, when a musical is being produced for television, they have limitless possibilities for the dimensions of their world. Their sets can be large, ever changing, and intricate. For instance, Hairspray Live! took us from bedroom, to jail house, to gym, to T.V. studio. Every scene was set in a new space. Often in theatre, spaces must be created to be multipurpose. No doubt it is a luxury to have so much space to create all the various settings, but I wonder if this is a detriment to these televised musicals. How do they know when to stop? Are they using these elaborate sets as a crutch to support other places in their production that are lacking? Not all of these productions have fallen into this trap; Peter Pan, The Wiz, and The Sound of Music all stuck to relatively normal sized sets. Part of the genius of theatre is its ability to transport us into another world with the aid of a few simple set designs. The television format seems to cheat the system. Using these more realistic designs cheapens the overall sense of imagination that is needed to enter into theatre.
In addition, another terrifically important piece of the theatre puzzle is lost when we translate the works to T.V,: the audience. I believe an important part of a dynamic performance stems from the energy the audience is able to deliver. While I am grateful these are live performances being broadcast, we are still missing the warmth and excitement an audience brings. Grease Live! and Hairspray! attempted to bridge this gap by including “regular people” as extras; however, this was not able to create a dynamic performance. The cast and audience are meant to be in light conversation with one another during a performance. As one gives, the other receives, and gives again. Without that audience it becomes a one dimensional vignette.
Now that I’ve given a few reasons to be wary of these T.V. musicals, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I actually do like them. I jump to hear the next production they are taking on. I gawk and roll my eyes as the casting decisions are released. While I usually end up cringing my way through the broadcast, it brings my heart joy to know that more people have the opportunity to experience a bit of the theatre. Theses shows are by no means perfect representations of musicals, but at least they are out there, readily available to millions. Theatre can be seen as inaccessible; the price tag, stereotypes of it being uncool, and associations with education have driven many young people away. Why would they waste money on an activity that reminds them of the time they were forced to read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade English class. These televised productions can serve as a way to reintroduce young and old alike to the beauty and joy that can be found in theatre. While a true drama fanatic will never be able to say that these are excellent performances, they must concede that it is healthy, helpful way to bring theatre to the forefront of cultural conversations.