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. 

5 Shows to See in Australia Right Now

Destinations such as New York City and London are known for having incredible theatre districts, but you may be surprised to hear that there is some wonderful theatre being performed in Australia as well. 

While it may not be the first tourist activity you would think to do there(although their most popular landmark is an opera house), we definitely encourage you to check out some of these shows if you're going there in the next few weeks. 

If you're wondering why we're talking about Australian theatre, it's the third largest location of our readership behind the United States and Great Britain. So let's give them some attention, 

'Hay Fever' at the Sydney Theatre Company

An irresistibly heartless comedy

The Bliss family love intrigue, love arguing and really love a spotlight. They are everything a respectable family ought not to be – unconventional, uncensored and unapologetic.

When each of the four outrageously eccentric Bliss family members invites a guest to their rural retreat, the unassuming visitors face a hectic living melodrama from which there seems to be no escape.

Deliciously funny comedies were Noël Coward’s forte. Hay Fever is a “wonderfully witty and deliciously snarky” (Time Out) classic full of secret seductions, misjudged meetings and wicked revelations.

An exceptional cast led by Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss, the prima donna to end all prima donnas, includes Harriet Dyer (Travelling North), Tony Llewellyn-Jones (Amigos), Josh McConville (After Dinner) and Helen Thomson (King Lear).

Having had us in hysterics with After Dinner in 2015, director Imara Savage and designer Alicia Clements reunite to give us a country weekend like no other.

Hay Fever promises to be a thoroughly enjoyable and seductively comic affair.

The show run thru May 21st. For tickets and info visit sydneytheatre.com.au. 

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'Lake Disappointment' at Carriageworks

“Kane and me were both rising stars. I was rising to the top of the hand-modelling world and Kane was doing his plays. Kane got his first action film and I became his double. We clicked. Everyone said so.” 

A new Australian work by Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott with collaborator James Brown and Director Janice Muller, Lake Disappointment plunges beneath the surface of an image obsessed world and strums an unnerving riff on contemporary identity.

The show runs through April 23rd. For tickets and info visit, carriageworks.com.au

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King Charles III at the Roslyn Packer Theatre

The Queen is dead. Long live the King?

Winner of the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play, Mike Bartlett’s spectacular King Charles III predicts an audacious future history. This is an epic writ now.

This exclusive Australian premiere comes to STC fresh from its West End and Broadway runs. Described as “ingenious” (The Guardian) and “easily the sharpest, most sophisticated political drama I have ever seen on stage” (Time), King Charles III has been unanimously lauded by audiences and critics alike.

Sometime in the not too distant future, the Queen is dead. Having waited a lifetime to fulfil his destiny, Prince Charles ascends the throne with Camilla by his side. As William, Kate and Harry look on, Charles wrestles with his new responsibilities… but how to rule? Let the royal games begin…

As political pandemonium and civil unrest threaten, Charles is forced to confront the contradictions of monarchy, democracy and his own moral conscience.

Exploring power and betrayal, the play skilfully reveals the people beneath the crowns as nuanced flesh and blood, and turns a Shakespearean lens on relationships in the world’s most famous and exposed family.

Directed with tremendous vision and wit by Almeida Theatre Artistic Director Rupert Goold, this is provocative and insightful political drama at its best - with a glint in the eye, a stiff upper lip, and the relevance of the daily news.

King Charles III is an international sensation not to be missed. 

'A remarkable achievement.' Sydney Morning Herald

'Generously entertaining and genuinely gripping.' The Daily Review

The show runs thru April 30th. For tickets and info visit, roslynpackertheatre.com.au

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'The Detectives Handbook' at the Hayes Theatre Company

Chicago, 1950. A city in the grip of a crime epidemic. Two dead cops have just been discovered.

Enter Frank Thompson, a hardboiled detective who knows just what it takes to get a result. His new partner, Jimmy Hartman, couldn’t be more different. Young, fresh and enthusiastic Jimmy is determined to clean up the mean streets without breaking the rules. Following the clues, the old dog and the young pup are led into a world of seedy bars and femme fatales. Will the new recruit teach the experienced detective a thing or two about police work? Will officers Hammett and Spade ever clean out the evidence locker? Will the criminal mastermind be discovered? And just who is the mysterious Miss Raines?

“The Detective’s Handbook is an especially exciting show for us to be presenting at Hayes Theatre Co,” said Hayes Theatre Co Chair Neil Gooding. “Firstly, it is a new, totally original Australian musical, which is fairly rare in itself. Secondly, it is the first fully staged production of a show that has been guided through our New Musicals Australia program. The Detectives Handbook is smart, funny and has a distinctive voice, with music by Olga Solar and book and lyrics by Ian Ferrington.”

“It's a rare honour to be working on a new Australian musical, said Director Jonathan Biggins. “The Hayes is both the ideal laboratory and nursery - musicals are unusual hybrids that need a lot of attention to help them grow! This is a witty, quirky show with a distinctive and unexpected voice and we've got a great cast to showcase its potential.”

THE DETECTIVE’S HANDBOOK is the result of when a former rapper develops an obsession with the golden age of detective novels. Coupled with a bright and lively jazz score, this new Australian musical is guaranteed to have you laughing out loud as Thompson and Hartman investigate the crime in an hilarious clash of the old guard and the new recruit, determined to do it 'by the book'.

The show runs thru May 7th. For tickets and info visit, hayestheatre.com.au

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'Fiddler on the Roof' at the Capitol Theatre

Direct from Broadway, Australian superstar Anthony Warlow returns to Sydney to star in a brand new production of one of the greatest and most loved musicals of all time – Fiddler on the Roof. Playing from 24 March for 6 weeks only!

Directed by the acclaimed Roger Hodgman, and boasting the spectacular choreography of Jerome Robbins, this eagerly anticipated new production also stars Sigrid Thornton as Golde, Mark Mitchell, Nikki Wendt and Aria Award Winner, Lior.

Fiddler on the Roof has captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences around the world for over 50 years with its humour, warmth and honesty. The show follows the heart-warming journey of a family that has its traditional life turned upside down as the modern world starts to impact on life in their idyllic village. Fiddler on the Roof’s humour, passion and warmth has touched audiences all over the world with its celebration of life, love and family.

The show runs thru May 8th. For tickets and info visit, capitoltheatre.com