Live TV Musicals: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As a lifelong musical theatre fan, I have personally loved the growing trend of televised live musicals. So, I was super thrilled for the Easter broadcast of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!" and watched it religiously. It's exciting to see a beloved show with big stars for no cost, and it's also exciting to think that networks are bringing attention to live theatre. However, there have been some...hiccups along the way. Here, I'll break down the best moments from live musicals, the worst mishaps and the performances that were so bad they were good. 

1. Good: Shanice Williams in "The Wiz Live!" 

For their production of "The Wiz," NBC prioritized talent over name recognition and cast an unknown, 18-year-old Shanice Williams as their lead, and boy did it pay off. She brought a young, fresh face and an energetic, powerful voice to the part, fitting both the role and the tone of the show perfectly. Williams' casting stands out because it was simply so perfect and proved that you don't need a big name when you have a big voice. 

2. Bad: Carried Underwood as Maria in "The Sound of Music"

 

Speaking of casting choices...this one was just bizarre. Underwood is a wholesome face and widely known, so the logic behind her casting is understandable- until you hear her sing. Underwood's strong country vocals just couldn't make the transition to singing Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, especially while standing in the shadow of Julie Andrews. And Underwood really really doesn't have the acting chops necessary to carry the show. But we should've learned that from "Soul Surfer." The actual video of her in the show isn't available for free, but I've attached a clip of her singing from the score. 

3. Strange: Christopher Walken as Captain Hook in "Peter Pan Live"

This was so weird it was actually entertaining? Walken essentially stumbled around the stage confused and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second. 

4. Good: The "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!" Set

Out of all the other live TV musicals we've seen, "Jesus Christ Superstar" had the simplest staging, with only one set and the audience surrounding it like a concert venue. And it really worked because it allowed the cast, the music and the story to hold our attention rather than complicated set changes. And the rock concert atmosphere fit the show's '70s style score as well as the show's themes. The video clip here shows how the one stationary set also gives the performers opportunities to play around and interact with the scenery. 

5. Bad: The "Grease Live!" Set

They tried to do something really cool here by incorporating multiple sound stages with different audiences, but the overall effect fell flat. Instead, I found myself hoping they would pull of the complicated scene changes rather than immersed in the story. Also, moving from set to set killed the show's momentum because it felt like constant stopping and starting. 

6. Disappointing: Ariana Grande's performance in "Hairspray Live!" 

Penny Pingleton can be the funniest character in this show when she's done well. And given Grande's extensive acting background, I had confidence that she would knock the part out of the park. Instead, she fell flat. Grande seemed so concerned with sounding pretty that she missed all the opportunities for comedy that the part affords. It was a major letdown for all the "Hairspray" fans who are used to that character being hilarious. The whole performance just felt low energy. 

7. Good: John Legend's performance of "Gethsemane" in "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!"

John Legend, while a huge star, was actually an unlikely choice for the part of Jesus or just this musical in general. Most of the music has a rock and roll flare that contrasts with Legend's smoother vocals. Legend also opted for understated acting choices, which I actually enjoyed because they fit the character so well, but he definitely didn't fit the expectations for the part. He came through when it counted though, delivering an emotional, raw and beautiful version of Jesus' big number, "Gethsemane." 

8. Bad: Everything to do with "A Christmas Story Live!"

Despite an all-star cast, this just didn't work. Not everything is a good musical. Instead of feeling nostalgic, it felt stale. The music wasn't catchy or beautiful and it wasn't funny. They could've saved a lot of money and just shown the film. 

9. Cool: Ne-Yo's Original Song in "The Wiz Live!" 

Normally, I really really don't like it when people make changes to classics (unless it's a matter of removing racist, sexist material, etc.) but this addition fit the tone of the show so well. Also, it's a banger. I would definitely recommend listening to "We Got It," especially when you need a pick me up.  

10. Phenomenal: Everything about "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!"

By now you can probably tell which televised musical I really think got it right. This show wasn't perfect, but it had so much energy and momentum that it actually felt like live theatre. Other productions, with different sound stages and sometimes no live audiences, feel dead in comparison. This cast had a mix of big names besides John Legend, like Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper, as well as Broadway favorites who brought huge voices. The point of live theatre is that it feels special, like you're watching something that will only ever happen once. This show captured that energy.