For a minute there, it seemed as though the live TV musical had fallen out of favor once again.
Beginning with NBC’s 2013 production of The Sound of Music Live!, we found ourselves in the midst of a minor craze as the networks (well, mostly NBC and Fox) gathered A-list casts to mount annual specials, bringing some of Broadway’s most beloved musicals to life on the small screen. But after a 2019 that saw Fox have to rely on Rent: Live‘s taped dress rehearsal footage while ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live! made us wonder whether they really understood the assignment or not, it felt like a good time to press pause for a bit.
Of course, that all changes on Wednesday, Dec. 9, as NBC revives the genre somewhat for a special holiday production of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical starring Glee‘s Matthew Morrison as the titular green beasty. Pre-taped in London under strict COVID-19 protocols, the switcheroo left Morrison feeling slightly scared, he told Daily Pop‘s Justin Sylvester.
“It was terrifying, if I’m being honest,” the American Horror Story: 1984 star said. “It was very challenging. This was meant to be a live version of this, as most of these are, but with COVID protocols, we weren’t really allowed to do that.” That meant, of course, that cast and crew had to remain in a bubble throughout production. Morrison added, “We had a month of rehearsals and we shot all of this in London and then we had, like, two days of actually filming.”
While we wait to see how Morrison and Co. make their grand Whoville debut, let’s take a look at all the TV musicals that came before them. Which production hit all the right notes? Read on to find out!
Fox threw a lot at the wall with this 2016 Easter special, a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. With Tyler Perry as narrator, musicians like Trisha Yearwood (as Mary Magdalene) and Chris Daughtry (as Judas) sang contemporary music on the streets of New Orleans. There were also man-on-the-street interviews, for some reason. It never really came together, but A for effort.
Laverne Cox gave it her all as she stepped into Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s fishnets for Fox’s 2016 reimagining of the 1975 cult classic, but the glossy big budget approach failed to capture what makes the original so beloved in the first place. And without the spectacle of doing it live—the project was shot and edited as any standard film would be—many wondered what, exactly, was the point.
NBC did poor Allison Williams no favors saddling her with Christopher Walken as the Captain Hook to her Peter Pan in their 2014 special. His approach to the character was bizarrely leaden, bringing whatever momentum the production had to a halt whenever Hook re-entered the story. It was amusing, but certainly not in the way anyone involved intended.
The problem with Fox’s live musical from 2017 starring Maya Rudolph, Chris Diamantopoulos and Matthew Broderick, among others, is that it had very little brand recognition. Sure, most people are aware of the beloved 1983 film the 2012 stage musical is based on, but can you name one song from it? Exactly.
Moana star Auli’i Cravalho was excellent as Ariel in this 2019 ABC production, as were her supporting cast members Graham Phillips, John Stamos and Queen Latifah, but two-thirds of this special was literally just the 1989 animated film with some live concert performances here and there. The whole thing felt a bit like one of Ursula’s bait-and-switch deals.
It’s hard to really fault Fox for doing what they had to do with this 2019 special after star Brennin Hunt, who played Roger, broke his foot during dress rehearsal the night before. While the audience at home was treated to that taped production, there’s no doubt that Hunt’s co-stars, including Vanessa Hudgens, Kiersey Clemons, Jordan Fisher and Tinashe, wished they weren’t being judged on their practice performances. Nevertheless, by the time the OG Broadway cast joined the new class for a curtain call performance of “Seasons of Love,” all was forgotten. It was that special of a moment.
The one that started it all. Carrie Underwood sounded fantastic as Maria in NBC’s 2013 production, which kicked off our recent TV musical craze. But when the American Idol winner wasn’t singing, well, it didn’t exactly work. Audra McDonald‘s performance of “Climb Every Mountain,” though, was worth the price of admission alone.
The set design for NBC’s live production of the 1975 musical, best known for its 1977 motion picture starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, was pure eye candy. Newcomer Shanice Williams was a true delight as Dorothy. And the supporting cast of heavy-hitters, including Queen Latifah, Common, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba and Mary J. Blige, gave Williams everything she needed to shine. To be honest, we’re still reliving the vogue moment once Dorothy reached the Emerald City five whole years later. We’d ease on down this road again any day.
For their 2016 production of the stage musical based on John Waters‘ iconic film, NBC plucked newcomer Maddie Baillio out of casting call obscurity and put her into Tracy Turnblad’s saddle shoes for a true star is born moment. Then they surrounded her with high-wattage talent like Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Kristin Chenoweth, Dove Cameron and Harvey Fierstein, reprising his Tony-winning performance of Edna Turnblad. Even if we could stop the beat, we wouldn’t have wanted to.
If you’re going to mount a live concert performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s iconic rock opera, you better stack your cast. And that’s just what NBC did in 2018, with John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon and Alice Cooper stepping into the production’s four major roles and singing their faces off. There’s a reason why it won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special. And that’s because it was damn good.
NBC may have kicked off the craze, but it was Fox that perfected it with their 2016 take on what is arguably one of the most beloved musicals there is. The production made inventive use of the entire Fox backlot, taking the action outdoors (and into the rare L.A. rain) when the plot called for it, while also making room for a live audience to really up the communal experience of live theater. The cast, from stars Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough to scene-stealers like Kether Donohue and Keke Palmer, were uniformly terrific, bursting with enthusiasm and energy. But it was Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo who stole the damn show. Performing live the day after losing her father, she exhibited such grace under what could only be described as the worst sort of pressure, knocking her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” out of the backlot and into the stratosphere.