There’s nothing quite like live TV. Performing without the safety net of retakes or the ability to halt production infuses a show with an air of excitement—anything can happen at any time.
Four years ago, NBC aired a live version of The Sound of Music. Fox soon followed, and ABC has talked about getting into the game (although its live version of The Little Mermaid is on hold). The peacock network is sitting this year out, as its planned production of Bye Bye Birdie, starring Jennifer Lopez, has been postponed. But Fox will premiere A Christmas Story Live! this Sunday at 7 p.m., starring Maya Rudolph, Matthew Broderick, Chris Diamantopoulos, Jane Krakowski, Ana Gasteyer, David Alan Grier, and Ken Jeong. Andy Walken will make his network television debut as Ralphie Parker.
So we thought it was time to rank the recent batch of live TV musicals, from bad to spectacular.
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.
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.
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.”
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 won the role of Dorothy after a nationwide search. 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.
Stars: Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson and Martin Short
Original Air Date: December 7, 2016
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.
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) or her blog .