Measuring the Success of Musical Theatre on TV

James Tredinnick

OnStage Australia Columnist

I think it's fair to say that Musicals have successfully transitioned to film. The Disney Renaissance period during the 90’s opened the door for film adaptations of Musicals such as Hairspray, Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd, which have all achieved various levels of success. 
The adaptation of Les Miserables in 2012 was nominated for a string of awards, and the smash hit La La Land even managed to pick up an Oscar for Best Picture earlier this year (for about 40 seconds). However, despite the popularity enjoyed by Musicals in the world of Cinema, the smaller screen has proved to be a much tougher nut to crack. Several attempts have been made over the years to bring the world of the Musical to Television, but only very few have been successful.  
Which is weird.  
I’ve been racking my brain trying to discover why the discipline we all know and love has failed to be accepted by a Television audience on so many occasions. Surely there must be a reason. So, on a rainy day, as boredom set in, I decided to do what any normal hot-blooded male does when boredom sets in: a case study. I chose three Musical shows, which have all achieved different levels of success, and attempted to discern what it was that caused them to fail or succeed. And, you lucky devils, I’m going to share with you my results. So fasten your seat-belts. Here we go. 
1.    Viva Laughlin
I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve never seen Viva Laughlin. There’s a very simple reason for this, and that is that I never got the chance. When Viva Laughlin premiered in the US, it lasted only two episodes before getting the axe. Over here in Australia, it lasted only one. But why? The show promoted as a Musical Comedy/Mystery/Drama didn’t have awful credentials. It was produced by Hollywood heavyweight Hugh Jackman and was adapted from a popular British series called Blackpool. Jackman even appeared in the show. But it didn’t take off. It bombed, and bombed hard. However, in this case, I’m happy to say I don’t think the music is at fault. The reviews I’ve read all point towards the poor dialogue and acting as the culprit rather than the Musical numbers. Combine all this with the relative lack of star power in the cast and it’s not hard to discover the source of the failure. But, as I said, it did only last for two episodes. Further research required. 
2.    Galavant
Another confession: I love this show. It’s better than holding my firstborn son. I assume. So I will provide fair warning that my analysis of this glorious program will contain a small amount of bias. Having said that, the facts speak for themselves, and the facts are that for the 2 seasons that Galavant spent on air it was met with immensely positive reviews, with season 2 even holding a coveted 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But despite the critical acclaim, Galavant struggled for viewers, and was unfortunately cancelled well before its time. So why was no one tuning in? Again, it wasn’t about the music. It can’t have been. With songs by the legendary Glenn Slater and the incomparable Alan Menken, musical incompetence was never going to be an issue. On top of that, the stories: strong. The characters? Memorable. So we can rule those out too. So if the music is catchy, and everything on top of it is a blast, what could the problem possibly be? The picture is starting to become clearer. 
3.    Glee
You knew it was coming. The Musical dramedy to which all others are compared was a hit with viewers and critics alike, picking up 19 Emmy nominations and running for 6 seasons. So what does it have that the others don’t? The obvious answer, it would seem, is familiarity. The high school dramedy is a tried and true recipe for television success, and the songs themselves are (mostly) popular songs that have already proven to be successful, whether as pop/rock songs or even as beloved Musical theatre standards. A Musical TV series will always be a risk, but Glee seems to be the least risky of the lot. It’s also the most successful.  
And isn’t that interesting. 
Perhaps the answer is a simple one. When a Musical is made into a film, more often than not, it is exactly that: a Musical, and usually a successful one, being adapted into a different medium. If it was successful on stage, it stands to reason that it would be successful on film. TV is different. In most cases a Musical television series will be a combination of an original story and original music with no reputation and no existing following. It must stand on its own merits, which has proven time and time again to be a terribly difficult thing to do. The success of Glee offers further evidence that people are willing to accept something different, just as long as it’s not too different.  
Of course, this theory is flawed, and barely scratches the surface. Musical series’ like Empire and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feature original music and are both relatively successful, and as previously mentioned, the film La La Land has enjoyed tremendous success despite being entirely original. So maybe I’m on the wrong track. I don’t know. It certainly requires more research, and I for one plan to watch as much Musical TV as I can, and I hope that there will be much, much more to come. 
Now go watch Galavant. Thank me later.