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Live Musicals: Past, Present, Apeal

Grease: Live! NBC

Grease: Live! NBC

Claire Ramsey, Writer

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In the past several years, popular television networks like, NBC, home of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Voice, and many others, have made a breakthrough in the way we view musical theatre. The network reestablished the endeavor of live TV musicals with The Sound of Music Live! starring Carrie Underwood in December of 2013. The success of these TV events in the years following has people questioning why the addition of some fancy cameras and a big TV network brought the world of Broadway back into the spotlight.

Since The Sound of Music Live! aired in 2013, popularity of live TV musicals has gone through the roof but little do viewers know, the 2013 production was not the first of its kind. Over sixty years ago, NBC took the initiative to pioneer the concept of live musicals over television. In 1955, Mary Martin, original star of The Sound of Music, starred in Peter Pan, a role she had already won a Tony for on Broadway. The broadcast was so well received that she enacted the role again a year later. Following the success of the production, an ambitious producer at CBS sought for his network to follow the same path. In 1957, young broadway sensation, Julie Andrews, performed the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella to a remarkable audience of 107 million television viewers over CBS.

Almost fifty years after the last live TV musical, NBC undertook the project again with The Sound of Music Live!, a show, ironically, made famous by Julie Andrews. A year later, the network brought Peter Pan back to the television screens with Allison Williams (known for Girls, and Get Out) in the title role and Christopher Walken (known for Pulp Fiction, Click, The Jungle Book, etc.) taking the mantle of Captain Hook. TV musicals became an annual December tradition for NBC, following Peter Pan Live! with The Wiz Live!, carrying big names like Queen Latifah, Amber Riley, and Ne-yo. The next year, Fox jumped on the bandwagon to broadcast their first live TV musical, Grease: Live. The production starred Julianne Hough (Safe Haven, Footloose, Dancing with the Stars) along with Broadway star, Aaron Tveit. NBC followed tradition this past December with Hairspray Live!, casting fresh face Maddie Baillio in the lead role on top of well-known stars like Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, and Derek Hough. None of the recent spectacles have managed to beat the ratings that The Sound of Music received in 2013. NBC’s annual music for 2017 will be Bye Bye Birdie starring Jennifer Lopez.

So what is so alluring to viewers about these live television specials? In a world where Netflix rules all and viewers can binge-watch entire shows at their leisure, why would people still tune into live events at all when they can stream it later? For the same reason they watch The Voice or Dancing with the Stars, some of television’s most popular shows. In spite of the hunger to binge-watch a whole series in one day, TV watchers will always have the desire to view things on the television at the exact moment they are happening in real life. On top of that, the familiarity of musicals like Grease, The Sound of Music, and Peter Pan will continue to keep the world audience interested. As long as the TV audience holds these desires, TV networks will continue to provide the Broadway-like experience, unaccessible to the majority of the population.

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Live Musicals: Past, Present, Apeal