At The Musical Theater Project’s special Members’ event in October, we screened the live TV musical Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates (1958). It was fascinating — not only because of the primitive (by our standards) technology, but also because it was an original musical created for television.
Which got me thinking about the 13 live musicals done on TV since 2000 — all of them drawn from classic stage musicals: Grease, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music and others. I feel these live musicals have been a mixed bag when it comes to the quality of the performances and the production.
So to put it in terms of “hair,” here are a few representing both the highlights – and lowlights – of this return to the live-action phenomenon.
You can catch all of them on Amazon or Paramount+.
Low – The Sound of Music Live! (NBC, 2013)
If I had a mid-tier I would put The Sound of Music there because this production was a mixed bag. I love Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess, and the performers who played the other nuns were wonderful. But then you mix Carrie Underwood’s more natural pop/country sound with them, and it doesn’t mesh very well. I love Carrie, but I don’t think she should have been cast in this role; she had too little experience to take on Maria. She became more comfortable as the show went on, but I wished she had (to quote one of her songs) a bit more confidence.
This live show doesn’t get enough credit, though, perhaps because it was the first of this new generation of live musicals. If it had completely “failed,” though, others wouldn’t have followed. The choreography is excellent, especially for “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” staged on the uneven terrain of the hills they built for the set, and the standout performers of the nuns and Laura Benanti as Elsa make it worth the watch.
Low – Peter Pan Live! (NBC, 2014)
Okay, here’s the first genuinely low entry on my list. This live performance was such a disappointment. Growing up, I loved watching the VHS tape of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan from 1960 and Cathy Rigby’s from 2000, so when I found out they were doing a live version of Peter Pan for a contemporary audience I was excited that kids would have their own version of the musical. But it did not live up to its predecessors.
The main problem is Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. I was looking forward to seeing him in this role since I know what he is capable of, but it felt like he was stumbling through this production. He really doesn’t sing; he mainly talks through his songs, which is a shame since Hook has some of the wittiest vocal moments in the show. Christian Borle as Smee and Mr. Darling really save it supporting Walken. The rest of the performers are fine, such as Allison Williams in the title role. Though she’s not a trained singer, I think what she did works, and you can tell she was having fun. Other standouts include Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling and the actors who play the Lost Boys.
High – Grease Live (FOX, 2016)
I think Grease was the one to prove that today’s live musicals can really work. Unlike Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, Grease was broadcast with an audience, and that brought an energy to the show that was different from its predecessors.
The talent in this show is unmatched. We have Broadway powerhouses like Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko and Jordan Fisher as Doody. Julianne Hough is great as Sandy, although she’s more of a dancer than a singer. The changing sets are fun – and giving original actors from the Grease movie, DiDi Conn and Barry Pearl – cameos in this show is a nice touch. For me the standout is Vanessa Hudgeons as Rizzo. Her father passed away the night before the broadcast from cancer, but she went on to give an amazing performance. This is one of the live musicals that I love to rewatch, and honestly, it’s up to par with the film.
High – Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (NBC, 2018)
Here it is, my favorite all-time live TV musical production! Even though it has “concert” in the title, I think of it as a musical since it was staged and choreographed like a musical. It’s not just actors singing into microphones and remaining stationary on stage. Where do I begin? The live instruments played on stage and the audience singing and clapping along bring a whole new energy – as in Grease Live. The grungier, more rock ‘n’ roll look to the show is also different from the lighter and dreamier sets of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. And it’s a simple stage with only a few props changing here and there to show what is happening in the story.
The talent of this show is also first rate. You have Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and special guest star Alice Cooper as King Herod. My favorite performance, though, is Norm Lewis as Caiaphas. His bass vocals stand out among the cast. I also want to give a shout out to John Legend as Jesus. This role is not an easy one, with the crazy high vocals, and even though Legend can’t hit the highest notes for very long, he still gives a believable performance of Jesus in his final days. If you haven’t watched this live performance, you are missing out.
Overall, even though some shows are better than others, you must admit it’s impressive that the networks brought these types of live television events back for families of the 21st century to enjoy. I hope the pandemic didn’t kill them off for good because I would love to see what other shows could be done – maybe even original musicals like Hans Brinker. Only time will tell.
Ashley Bernett is the administrative assistant of The Musical Theater Project.