Live Musical Broadcasts - Good or Bad for the Theater World?

Erin Fossa

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

NBC recently announced it’s star-studded cast for the live musical broadcast of Hairspray in December. Like its previous productions of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz, NBC has gotten several big-name stars as well as several newcomers to star in this televised event which will no doubt bring in millions of viewers. At first glance, such a huge draw to a theater performance seems like a great thing for our community, right? 

Well, I’m just not so sure. 

And here’s why: Based on the response to those first musical broadcasts I mentioned, viewers  seem to be tuning in for several reasons. First, there are the relentless theater “critics” who will tear any production apart from curtain to curtain call. These people are watching with a cynical eye finding every reason to be unhappy with the production. (These are also the people who immediately jump on Twitter to make their opinions known. More on that in a second.) 

Second, there are the devoted fans of those big-named celebrities who want to see their idols perform in a different genre. A staggering number of Carrie Underwood fans tuned in to see her play Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. 

Then there are those who tune in out of pure curiosity, or boredom, or a host of other reasons. It is our hope, as a community of people desperately wanting to expose a new generation to the world of live theater, that somewhere in these millions of viewers is a young person who falls in love with this art form. Unfortunately, the majority of those young people tuning in withOUT an agenda will consult the general opinion before forming their own. And how do they do that? 


The Twitter response to these televised productions is full of good and bad. There are those tearing apart the production and saying awful things about the people involved. And then there are those fervently defending the cast and crew. The opinions range from one extreme to the other, and those opinions are what shape the opinions of the neutral viewers who aren’t experienced with live theater. 

Picture this: A young viewer who has never seen a live theater production tunes in to Peter Pan on NBC out of pure curiosity. He or she watches the first half hour and is puzzled by it,  noting the obvious differences between a movie musical and a live production on tv. The pacing is different, it isn’t as polished, and there is an occasional flub in dialogue. He or she thinks, “Do I like this? It’s different. But is it good different? What is everyone else saying about it?” The viewer then goes to Twitter and is shocked at the barrage of negativity and blatant insults directed at the cast. Now, he or she is definitely leaning toward a negative opinion of this new art form. 

This does nothing for us as a theater arts community. And of course, art appreciation isn’t the goal of this new trend of televised productions. NBC producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan admit that it was the high ratings that motivated them to do more than one live musical broadcast. Neil Meron is even okay with all the negative comments on social media. He is of the opinion that “no press is bad press” saying, “The more they talk, the more success these programs have, which allows it to continue, so it's all good.” 

As a theater community, we must ask ourselves if high ratings equal more appreciation. Personally, I don’t think so. We must also ask ourselves if we are part of the reason. Are we tearing these productions apart on social media? Are we contributing to the negativity that turns otherwise opinion-free viewers into haters? Are we watching with a cynical eye ourselves? We can be part of the discussion without being part of the relentless negativity. 

Now picture this: A young viewer who has never seen a live theater production tunes into Hairspray Live on NBC out of pure curiosity. In an attempt to form an educated opinion, he or she goes online and stumbles upon an intelligent discussion about the show. Performers are being praised and encouraged by their fans and positive criticism is being offered in an intelligent manner from those educated enough to do so. Suddenly, this viewer realizes what a complex art form theater is and is intrigued to learn more. 

Now that, is a much happier ending.