LOS ANGELES – A stranger in town scruffs up her squeaky-clean image to win the leather-coated heart of a bad boy. A makeshift family plans an improbable escape from ruthless forces obsessed with world domination. A teenager must overcome supernatural threats with the help of emotionally scarred outcasts.
All compelling pitches to today’s Hollywood gatekeepers — especially if you mix in some hummable tunes and jazz hands.
America hasn’t been this passionate about musicals since Gene Kelly had us singin’ in the rain, except this time the love affair is with the small screen, where desperate network executives are greeting the long neglected art form like they just secured a new season of “Seinfeld.”
On Sunday, Fox returns to Rydell High for “Grease: Live!” a 45-year-old production about crisscrossed lovers with ample recess time. The network plans to follow up the updated edition — Boyz II Men serenade beauty school dropout Carly Rae Jepsen — with “The Passion,” an Easter Sunday celebration from New Orleans in which Trisha Yearwood offers her take on Whitney Houston’s “Your Love Is My Love.” And get ready to do the Time Warp (again) this fall with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” starring Minnetonka High School grad Ryan McCartan.
“There’s a reason why theater has existed for thousands and thousands of years,” said “Passion” director Thomas Kail, who also helmed “Hamilton,” the biggest thing to happen on Broadway since the invention of neon lights. “We all want to sit around the campfire and have someone tell us a story. Now the campfire can be a 42-inch television set.”
Fox is simply getting in the conga line behind NBC, where the blockbuster success of “The Sound of Music” two years ago quickly made live musicals one of the network’s favorite things.
That production, which drew 18.6 million viewers, was followed by 2014’s “Peter Pan” and last month’s “The Wiz.” And while not as many people were glued to their sets during their initial runs, both blew up on social media, which are becoming as critical to advertisers as those creaky Nielsen ratings.
“The Wiz” alone generated 1.6 million tweets during its premiere, making it the most buzzed-about TV event that didn’t involve sports or the possibility of Taylor Swift winning an award.
“If we’ve spawned a little uprising of musicals, that’s great,” said NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, who’s eyeing “Hairspray” for December. “I don’t think there’s an infinite number of these that can be done, but we’re still doing them.”
A gleeful resurgence
Weaving music into TV comedy and drama dates to Lucy Ricardo’s attempts to worm her way into Ricky’s nightclub in the 1950s and is well represented these days by ABC’s “Nashville,” now in its fourth season, and Fox’s “Empire,” a series doing such a good job of living up to its name that there’s talk of two spinoffs.
But the traditional musical format, in which characters suspend action — and reality — to bust a move, has struggled over the years.
“Cop Rock,” the 1990 series produced by Steven Bochco with original songs from Randy Newman, is considered the “Ishtar” of the small screen. Despite the backing of Hugh Jackman, 2007’s “Viva Laughlin” was canceled by CBS after two episodes.
“American Dreams,” which put the spotlight on the kids who wigged out to “American Bandstand” during the ’60s, lasted from 2002 to 2005 on NBC, but always teetered on the verge of cancellation.
“I think we were slightly ahead of our time,” said cast member Vanessa Lengies, starring in Fox’s “Second Chance.” “Maybe we were on two years too soon.”
In 2009, Fox gambled on “Glee,” a show that dared viewers to fall in love with unfamiliar stars breaking into song between chemistry class and home ec. The risk paid off, in terms of ratings and subsequent record sales.
“When ‘Chicago’ was made into a film, suddenly there were all these movie musicals,” said Marc Platt, an executive producer on “Grease” who helped bring “Wicked” to the stage. “Then ‘Glee’ came on and suddenly there was music on television.”
Part of the appeal may have nothing to do with the soundtrack.
Once upon a time, network TV was blanketed by “The Waltons,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Happy Days,” shows you could watch with your kids and parents. Today’s most popular series — gritty procedurals and edgy sitcoms — are almost impossible to sit through with Grandma without fidgeting the same way you would if a stack of Playboys were piled on the living room table.
“These shows appeal to both parents and kids, the same way a Broadway show does,” said Aaron Tveit, who plays Danny Zuko in “Grease: Live!” “But not everyone can see a Broadway show. The prices are outrageous. With these TV shows, you can sit down and have the same experience with your family in your own house.”
That opportunity may be especially inviting for those in schools where being in a stage production is about as cool as being treasurer of the chess club.
“Galavant,” the ABC comedy in which singing and dancing characters pay homage to King Arthur and Mel Brooks, may not be a hit, but ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee said high schools are lining up to do their own adaptations.
Kelli Foster Warder, education manager for Spotlight Education, Hennepin Theatre Trust’s program for budding stage stars in Minnesota, said these live musicals are making the art form more mainstream.
“Students can tell their friends who watch ‘Grease’ that ‘Yeah, that’s what we do!’ ” she said. “It’s too soon to tell, but I think these shows are going to sell more tickets.”
‘You made me feel stuff’
Grown-up professionals, who feared that all those years of vocal training and tap-dancing lessons were going to waste, are also thrilled about the revolution.
David Alan Grier has three Tony nominations for his stage roles, which include Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess.” But for decades, he was known to TV audiences only for comedy, most notably as a flamboyant film critic on the 1990-94 series “In Living Color.”
That changed last month with his acclaimed turn as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wiz.”
“The best remark I got was when I was at the DMV two days after it was on and this hard-rock black dude came up to me and said, ‘Yo, dog. You made me feel stuff, man,’ ” said Grier, using slightly more colorful language. “ ‘I was crying, man. I like that stuff.’ That was great.”
Jerrod Carmichael, Grier’s co-star on NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” said he hopes the trend triggers new appreciation for those who can do it all.
“The success of ‘The Wiz’ shows television audiences crave as much as Broadway audiences have for years,” said Carmichael, whose sitcom also features stage veteran Loretta Devine. “It’s a beautiful time to be a full-service entertainer.”
No plans are in the works for a “Carmichael” musical episode, but such an excursion wouldn’t be out of step with the times, not after the groundwork has been laid by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “How I Met Your Mother.”
“Jane the Virgin,” the CW’s Golden Globe-winning sendup of telenovelas, isn’t technically a musical, but it has incorporated numbers on more than one occasion to mix it up and service guest stars such as Britney Spears.
“As a producer, you’re always looking to make shows more dynamic, and the success of musicals are emboldening and encouraging us,” said “Virgin” creator Jennie Snyder Urman. “You get tired of the same old thing. You want to feel sometimes like you’re doing something special.”
Once more, with feeling
Putting on a song-and-dance routine isn’t just a matter of learning a two-step and practicing your scales.
The first season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the CW series garnering accolades for star Rachel Bloom, is incorporating 38 original songs ranging in style from Latin pop to ’80s metal. Some dance numbers take more than a week to choreograph.
“Grease,” unlike NBC’s past musicals, will take place in front of live audiences on various sets, which means the actors will be jumping in and out of golf carts to hit their marks. More than 40 cameras will be utilized with a crew of more than 350 people.
Save your tears. To borrow a line from Rizzo: There are worse things they could do.
“When you’re in a straight drama, you have these heavy scripts with massive amounts of dialogue and you’ve got to do your homework in a completely different sort of way,” said “Galavant” star Luke Youngblood. “I think it’s easier for us because it feels like playing the moment we get on the set. It’s almost unfair that we get to have so much fun.”