Grease: LIVE and the Advent of TV Musicals

If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and freaked out over Fox’s Grease: LIVE last Sunday. I get super excited whenever a new TV musical is produced. For those of us not living in New York City, and even more so not living in the United States, it can be really hard to find professional productions of our favourite shows. But even then, so many Americans, avid theatre enthusiasts like the rest of us, can’t afford to be exposed to these shows, either. This whole phenomenon is very close to my heart. But before I continue with this tangent, I want to particularly talk about Grease.

It was great, wasn’t it?! I mean, every single actor was totally on point in their dancing and singing, and that choreography was stunning. And honestly, can we please talk about Tommy Kail’s direction? He’s getting to be a big name around Broadway, having directed both Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Hamilton. Seriously, though; this was shot like a movie. It was really smooth.

The addition of the live audience was also a great choice, in my opinion. That particular element has gotten mixed feedback, but I thought it brought some of the authenticity of the theatre to the project.

I don’t really want to get into specifics, because you’ve probably heard it all before: how Aaron Tveit was as talented as ever, how Vanessa Hudgens blew us all away despite the recent death of her father, and all the other raves it’s been receiving (with good reason). But I mostly want to talk about the advent of televised musicals in general, and what they mean to us and to Broadway in general.

In case you haven’t heard, this is the fourth TV musical so far; before that, we had The Wiz Live back in December, Peter Pan the year before that, and The Sound of Music before that, all broadcasted by NBC. (NBC, if you recall, also did the TV show Smash a couple of years ago, so they are quite aware of us theatre nerds.) While NBC’s first two projects were a little underwhelming, the two most recent productions have been quite fantastic. It’s so amazing that we as an audience get to be exposed to these shows and these actors, as we so rarely get a taste of their talents normally.

When I was at BroadwayCon a few weeks ago, I actually went to a panel on the screening of musicals, which included producer Ken Davenport. He’s produced shows like Kinky Boots, The Visit, and the recent revival of Spring Awakening. He’s also the guy who made the Daddy Long Legs livestream happen last December.

This was the first time a New York musical was filmed and streamed online for free – ever. It was very well done and felt so intimate considering it was such a momentous occasion. Especially since it’s a smaller show Off-Broadway with only two cast members and a simple set, it worked really well. Davenport claims he wants to stream more shows like these in the future.

Most surprising was that this show was streamed during its run. This is extremely risky, considering that it might decrease ticket sales, since they were worried people wouldn’t want to see it live after having watched it on their laptops (this can go back to what I’ve said about bootlegs in the past). They did a survey of all those who tuned in after the broadcast, and they came up with some really cool results, which you can read here.

This all ties in to BroadwayHD, a Netflix-esque service that allows paying customers to stream Broadway shows that have come and gone. It started up in April 2014. From what I’ve heard so far, the available shows are somewhat limited, but its creators (also at the BroadwayCon panel) are working hard to continue adding shows to the service. It’s mostly plays as of right now, but it does have a couple of musicals, such as Gypsy, Jekyll and Hyde, and the 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis. I definitely intend to check this out as soon as I can.

There are so many ways to watch live musicals from the comfort of your own home nowadays, and I think this is both a fascinating and important phenomenon in making theatre accessible to more audiences. From TV musicals to livestreams to BroadwayHD, the Broadway world just keeps getting bigger and better, allowing for more people to be exposed to live theatre.

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