BRING ON LIVE TV MUSICALS!

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+.

live tv musicals

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.

live tv musicals

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.

COMING JUNE 25: AN AMERICAN HERO

Sunday, June 25 (3 PM) at the Maltz Performing Arts Center (see homepage to take you to our online box office)

By Bill Rudman

One of the best things about my job is that I continue to learn alongside you. 

Such is the case with the concert you’re going to enjoy on June 25. It’s a partnership between TMTP and American Musical Productions, whose founder, Joseph Rubin, has become a good friend. 

We knew each other only by reputation—we both fancy ourselves “experts” in musical theater!—but not long before COVID hit, we had a long breakfast in New York, and we resolved to work on a project together. It took three years, but here we are… 

It also took some some time to agree on a theme; Joseph’s expertise is in a period just a bit earlier than mine. We settled on George M. Cohan, who is indisputably the father of American musical comedy, and to tell the truth, Nancy Maier and I have wanted to do a Cohan concert for years. Just think “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

What we got in Joseph was not only expertise and first-rate musicianship but also the original orchestrations, so that you’ll be hearing exactly what Broadway audiences heard in the early years of the 20th century. Which is, in a word, thrilling. 

We hope this begins a longtime collaboration between our two organizations. We were meant for each other. And by the way, I learned a lot! 

Kids Love Musicals!  …and I was one of ‘em!

I was a youngster of five or six when I first became aware of musical theater.  I was a freakish child of five voraciously reading about all things historical and presidential.  One summer, my mother took me to see 1776 at the movie theater.  Seeing the signing of the Declaration of Independence and being captivated by our singing and harmonizing founding fathers made me giddy.  I would sing “Sit Down, John” and “The Egg” with a passion my neighborhood friends just didn’t understand.  In junior high, the opportunity to PERFORM in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown gave me a new passion that I’ve enjoyed for most of my life.

Continue reading “Kids Love Musicals!  …and I was one of ‘em!”

TMTP Highlights a ‘Cultural Phenomenon’

The Musical Theater Project just closed its 15th annual “Christmas Cabaret” with sold-out performance at Edwin Too on Shaker Square—and once again audiences were surprised to hear an often-forgotten fact revealed by NANCY MAIER, NATALIE GREEN and JOE MONAGHAN.

Namely, that most of our best-loved Christmas songs—from “White Christmas” to “The Christmas Song” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were penned by Jewish American songwriters. Oh, everybody knows about Irving Berlin—the quintessential Jewish immigrant—and his “White Christmas,” but not so much when it comes to Mel Torme’s “roasting chestnuts” and Johnny Marks’s “shiny-nosed” four-legged one.

In our show, I call it a cultural phenemenon!

And that’s to say nothing of composer Jule Styne. Styne is the Funny Girl and Gypsy guy, of course, but of the songwriters whose work comprises the Great American Songbook, he also the major Christmas-song guy.

With fellow Jewish American Sammy Cahn he wrote “The Christmas Waltz” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” But Styne also wrote no less than three Christmas musicals for television: “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962 – from which we performed the beautiful “Winter Was Warm”), Liza Minnelli’s The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood (1965) and The Night the Animals Talked (1970).

I had the privilege of interviewing Styne near the end of his life, and this is what he told me about his attraction to the holiday season: “Look, Christmas is the time of year when Americans want to sing more songs and hear more song than at any other time. And it’s a season about love. How could I not want to be part of that?”

What’s Bill Up To?

We’re thrilled when our participants tell us they have learned, laughed, cried and loved (our
slogan) at one of our events—but I must confess I’m just as happy when I learn something,
which happens all the time.

Example: Now available on our Let’s Go to the Movies series is my preview of the Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress (1937). We’ve provided the link to the film, and you can be part of our live-streamed Q&A on October 15.

Continue reading “What’s Bill Up To?”

What’s Bill Up To?

Bill is up to what all of us at The Musical Theater Project are up to—and this goes for most arts organizations in Cleveland as well. We’re creating online programming as a means of serving our participants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of TMTP, that includes our new weekly series, “Let’s Go to the Movies…at Home!,” an adaptation of our acclaimed school program, “Kids Love Musicals!,” and specially selected song playlists that can be streamed on Spotify. (And of course our two long-running radio programs on public stations and Sirius continue, unaffected by the virus.)

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Summer Reading List

Whether you’re laying on the beach or curled up on your porch, nothing says summer quite like indulging in a new book. While there’s plenty of escapist novels to dive into, the staff at TMTP is sharing some of our favorite musical theater books of all-time in case you’re missing the bright lights of Broadway this season. Click on the book image to view/purchase on Amazon.

Continue reading “Summer Reading List”