My grandmother used to have a saying: You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are or you aren’t.
The same could be said for live musicals. You either go for it and everything is live or you’re not a live musical and you need to pipe down with your advertising. In 2019, both “live” musicals suffered from being not-so-live actually, more live-ish to be exact. The year kicked off with Rent, which ended up being a pre-recorded version because of an injury, and then there was Little Mermaid Live!, which was two-thirds the 1989 animated classic and one-third actual live performances. You know it isn’t good when something billed as being “live” has to have chyron at the bottom of the screen advertising when star Auli’I Cravalho, the little mermaid herself, would actually be singing.
All this means it’s time once again for us to re-rank the recent live TV musicals:
10. Peter Pan Live!
Stars: Allison Williams, Christopher Walken, Christian Borle and Kelli O’Hara
Original Air Date: December 4, 2014 on NBC
My kids adore the Peter Pan musical, but this NBC version has caused much confusion in my household. My three year constantly asks “Is Peter Pan a boy or a girl” because, after all, a Peter Pan with breasts is confusing. (I’m happy to discuss gender fluidity with my kids, but I don’t think that’s what NBC was going for here). Allison Williams’ uninspired take on the boy who won’t grow up aside, the real reason this musical ranks last is Christopher Walken’s bizarre and lifeless Captain Hook. He spends the entire production seemingly confused as to why he is there and what he is supposed to be doing.
9. The Passion
Stars: Jencarlos, Trisha Yearwood, Prince Royce, Chris Daughtry and Seal
Original Air Date: March 20, 2016 on Fox
This turned out to be a bold experiment gone awry. Mostly live (with a few taped segments), the production used the city of New Orleans as a backdrop for the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. But that’s not all. The musical attempted to use rock and contemporary music to varying degrees of success. So there was Trisha Yearwood (as Mary) singing Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love” and Chris Daughtry (as Judas) singing “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence. Along the way, Tyler Perry narrated and there were people-on-the-street interviews. Fox gets a lot of credit for pushing the envelope of what can be done with live TV, but this never quite came together.
8.The Wonderful World of Disney Presents: The Little Mermaid Live!
Stars: Auli’i Cravalho, Graham Phillips, John Stamos, Queen Latifah, Shaggy and Amber Riley
Original Air Date: November 5, 2019 on ABC
“WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE?” That was my son’s review of the show. (The part he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch anyway. Why ABC would air this on a school night at 8 p.m. is beyond any reasonable explanation). This turned out to be more of a concert with elaborate costumes interspersed amid the movie. Look, l love the movie The Little Mermaid but I don’t need to see it on ABC. Every time the movie came on it just sucked all the energy out of the live stage show. To come back from a commercial break and air like five minutes of the movie during something that has been billed for months as “live” is nothing short of preposterous. For the most part the vocals were great (don’t worry I’ll get to Shaggy). Auli’I Cravalho and Graham Phillips were terrific as Ariel and Prince Eric (Zach Florrick can sing!). John Stamos clearly had a blast as Chef Louis and Queen Latifah brought just the right attitude to Ursula even if her costume did seem to be her nemesis. Shaggy clearly came from the Christopher Walken School of Live Musicals and really didn’t seem to know what he was doing there during “Under the Sea” and his red lobster coat looked very uncomfortable. He recouped a bit by the time he got to “Under the Sea” but the damage had been done. And the finale, a time when they could have literally ended on a high note, was just a drawn-out curtain call. I’ll pause to give a shout out to Disney for making Ariel’s sisters diverse not just in ethnicity but in size. These choices matter. But please what works at the Hollywood Bowl doesn’t work for TV. Next time ABC, live needs to mean live.
7. Rent Live!
Stars: Kiersey Clemons, Brandon Victor Dixon, Jordan Fisher, Vanessa Hudgens, Brennin Hunt, Mario, Tinashe, Valentina and Keala Settle
Original Air Date: January 27, 2019 on Fox
The show must go on! Break a leg! Fox’s production of Rent took those time-honored theater phrases a little too literally. Star Brennin Hunt, who played the pivotal role of Roger, broke his foot during the show’s Saturday dress rehearsal. That meant, instead of a long-planned live performance (this was first announced in May 2017), viewers were treated to the taping of rehearsal.
So we will never know what might have been. But here’s what we do know: It certainly seemed like many of the actors were holding back and saving their voice and their big moments for the main show—the main show that never came. Hudgens, who played the emotionally manipulative Maureen, and Dixon, as the sweet Tom Collins, did not do this. They clearly subscribe to the philosophy that every night is opening night. As the saying goes, they left it all on the field in their Saturday-night performance. The show truly came to life when Hudgens took the stage for “Over the Moon,” and her duet with Clemons on “Take Me or Leave Me” is what the term “showstopper” was made for. Clemons, who had been vocally timid up until that point, matched Hudgens, who is a vocal talent to be reckoned with, note for note. Dixon’s “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” was powerful and heartbreaking.
But there were so many issues. I’m not a fan of inviting in live audiences for these live musicals in general, and Rent’s really got in the way, leading to frenetic camerawork that tried to capture everything and instead caught nothing, giving viewers whiplash to boot. There were odd lyric changes (you can’t say “poo poo it” on the network that airs Family Guy?). I mean, Fox wasn’t doing a family-friendly musical, so why change the lyrics at all? And, vocally, a lot of the actors just weren’t up to the challenge. Valentina had the part and the attitude down, but not the voice to match it. The music was so loud you often couldn’t hear the vocals at all. The highlight came in the final curtain call, when the original Broadway cast sang “Seasons of Love.” They, of course, sounded amazing. The energy in those final moments almost made all that came before it worth it. Almost.
6. The Sound of Music Live!
Stars: Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle
Original Air Date: December 5, 2013 on NBC
How do you solve a problem like a singer who can’t act? It’s hard to be first, and The Sound of Music Live! kicked off this recent surge of live musicals. Former American Idol contender and country music superstar Carrie Underwood is not an actress—and it showed. She sounded great, but her performance was stilted and wooden. Maria’s romance with the Captain (Stephen Moyer) was so passionless it’s hard to imagine the pair escaping a boring office meeting together, let alone the Nazis. But the whole thing is worth tuning in for just to see Audra McDonald’s powerful and inspiring rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.”
5. A Christmas Story Live!
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Maya Rudolph, Andy Walken, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Krawkowski, Ana Gasteyer, Ken Jeong and David Alan Grier
Original Air Date: December 17, 2017 on Fox
Ambitious but flawed. Flawed but ambitious. No matter what your perspective, A Christmas Story Live! suffered from being a story we know but a musical we don’t. (There was no Oh, I can’t wait until they sing “Summer Lovin’”! moment.) Having the narrator (Matthew Broderick) weave in and out of the action is probably a theatrical convention that works best on stage, some of the 1940s parenting stung a bit in 2017 (should you really wash a child’s mouth out with soap?) and, at times, the cameras struggled to capture the full scope of the production. But here’s what did work: Chris Diamantopoulos’ amazing costume change before the show stopping number “A Major Award.” The always glorious Jane Krakowski flawlessly tap dancing her way through “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” Maya Ruldolph’s heartfelt rendition of “Just Like That,” a song mothers everywhere can relate to. And those amazing kids! Led by Andy Walken as Ralphie, the young cast had not one flub as they sang and danced for three hours. They were a joy to watch. Look, live musicals aren’t easy, and it’s easy to be snarky about them. But this one spread more than a little Christmas cheer.
4.The Wiz Live!
Stars: Common, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, Stephanie Mills, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige, Shanice Williams and Queen Latifah
Original Air Date: December 3, 2015 on NBC
It was very easy to ease on down this road. Newcomer Shanice Williams, who won the role of Dorothy after a nationwide search, was terrific as the girl who is not in Kansas anymore. With its vibrant set, lavish costumes and terrific cast, the musical had viewers dancing at home. It’s hard to pick a favorite performer. But if I had to, I would go with Amber Riley and Uzo Aduba as the Good Witches of the North and South.
3. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
Stars: John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon, Alice Cooper, Ben Daniels, Norm Lewis, Jin Ha, and Erik Gronwall
Original Air Date: April 1, 2018 on NBC
A rock opera in every sense of the phrase, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 musical came to life from the Marcy Armory in Brooklyn, N.Y. The live audience at times infused the production with energy and at other times were an annoying distraction (way too much whooping going on). The costume choices were a little odd (Jesus looked like he was modeling lounge wear) and there was so much glitter (as a parent who has taken home many school art projects, I can tell you that glitter will be on the stage for years to come). But oh those voices! Legend was the perfect Jesus. He exudes a calming presence and his vocals, including his incredible falsetto, were amazing. As Mary Magdalene, Bareilles gave me chills during “Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Broadway star Brandon Victor Dixon should be a household name after his take on Judas Iscariot. And Alice Cooper almost walked away with the whole thing during his show-stopping number as King Herod. No matter what your religious beliefs, this was one of the greatest live musicals ever told.
2. Hairspray Live!
Stars: Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson and Martin Short
Original Air Date: December 7, 2016 on NBC
The fourth time was truly a charm for NBC, with its most recent musical outing being its best. Harvey Fierstein reprised his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad ,and Maddie Baillio, who won the part of Traci Turnblad during an open casting call, held her own against some of Broadway and music’s biggest stars. Jennifer Hudson’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” stole the show. As an added bonus, former Traci Turblads Ricki Lake and Marissa Winokur both made cameo appearances. You just couldn’t stop this beat.
1. Grease Live!
Stars: Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, Carlos PenaVega, Carly Rae Jepsen, Keke Palmer, Kether Donohue, and Jordan Fisher
Original Air Date: January 31, 2016 on Fox
Fox got in on the live musical game with this enthusiastic take on the beloved musical. Using much of the Warner Bros. sound stages and backlot as its set and not letting rain or family tragedy (Vanessa Hudgens’ father passed away the day before the show) stop them, Grease Live! was full of joy. You simply couldn’t help smiling while watching. Classics such as “Summer Lovin’” and “Greased Lighting” were full of terrific choreography, and Hudgens’ take on “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” will take your breath away.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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