Doing Justice to the Live TV Musical

Jordan Nickels

In the 1950’s, live musicals like Peter Pan and Cinderella captivated audiences by bringing Broadway to the small screen. Fast-forward fifty years later and NBC brought back the live musical spectacle with The Sound of Music Live, which has prompted other networks like FOX to get into the mix as well.

Recently Broadway World did an interview with Chairmen & CEO of FOX Television Group, Dana Walden, on the announcement that FOX would be presenting RENT Live. When asked about the mature themes in RENT, Walden said that her daughters originally saw the high school version of the show, and while they would not “shy away from” mature themes, they will find a version “that is appropriate for our platform."

I understand that shows like RENT are very popular with a younger demographic and will bring in more viewers, however, as an artist, I get concerned with the creative license networks will take to make an edgier show more “family friendly.”

This is the same conversation I had last fall with FOX’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again! I was skeptical of why they picked a musical so famously shown at midnight in theaters because of nudity and other adult content. While I think, it was a brave venture by FOX, it turned out to be a Disney-fied presentation of Richard O’Brien’s cult classic.

The show’s scantily clad, outrageous characters were toned down with a cast including former Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice. There were also crucial moments changed, including Eddie’s death that resulted from a fall out the window (originally, he was stabbed to death by Frank n Furter with an ice pick.) The result wasn’t bad, but it didn’t fully capture the original creativity and oddity of the 1978 film. Even Richard O’Brien wanted “to stay detached” from the project, claiming it “is misconceived and badly cast.”

We get it, these networks want to find a popular musical that will appeal to a wide audience, yet still be appropriate for national television. However, if musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and RENT don’t fit both needs, maybe they should consider a different show. There is nothing wrong with high school versions of these shows, but they belong to a different audience. They don’t do justice artistically to the show itself for what the networks like NBC and FOX are trying to accomplish.

NBC has found a formula with shows like Hairspray and The Wiz, that present topics like race and inequality effectively, while staying family friendly and being appropriate for television. I applaud FOX for presenting Grease and the upcoming A Christmas Story, both classics and great musicals for an American audience. However, with so many musicals out there to choose from, maybe we should leave edgier shows for live theatre, and not the small screen.


Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg hailing from Terre Haute, Indiana. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. Website: Instagram: @jnickels8