LOS ANGELES – Television viewers have always accepted superheroes, talking animals and overweight schlubs landing hot wives. But when it comes to characters suddenly breaking into song, they’ve traditionally turned a deaf ear.
Just ask the network executives who tried to launch ABC’s “Cop Rock,” a 1990 series in which detectives turned the interrogation box into a karaoke bar, or “Smash,” the 2012-13 NBC drama about a Marilyn Monroe musical that died out faster than a candle in the wind.
CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” won a Golden Globe for its madcap novelty numbers, but its final season last year only drew about a half-million viewers.
Now Hollywood is betting that audiences are ready to change their tune.
“I think people are looking for joy and hope in the world right now,” veteran TV writer Austin Winsberg said back in January. “Musicals can touch upon deep emotions and can bring up stuff that’s hard to say in words.”
Winsberg is leading the chorus line with “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” his NBC dramedy about a crafty coder who imagines those around her as players in a never-ending series of Broadway numbers.
“Soundtrack,” currently streaming on Netflix, features its looking-for-love characters lip-syncing to Whitney Houston and Joni Mitchell. On May 8, “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle will bring his love of musicals to the small screen for Netflix’s “The Eddy,” set in a Paris nightclub.
In the animated series “Central Park,” debuting on Apple TV in late May, a family of park caretakers spends more time warbling original songs than picking up trash. Alicia Keys, the Chainsmokers and Billy Joel are also eyeing musical projects for TV.
“Musicals went out of style for so long,” said Kristen Bell, who voices a character on “Central Park.” “There’s a way to do it in which it’s just a story and you stop for a song, then more story and another song. It feels disjointed. You can tell that something’s off. But when you’re doing it right, the audience doesn’t even know why they’re so interested in it. You’re tricking them.”
Bell speaks from experience. She played Anna in both “Frozen” and “Frozen 2,” wildly successful animated movies that helped a new generation fall in love with musicals.
“Music is such a part of young people’s lives, even more so than when we were growing up,” said “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig, who serves as executive producer on “Zoey.” “The Disney and Pixar movies are all musicals. There’s less of a prejudice.”
TV executives are also paying attention to the box office on Broadway. According to the New York Times, grosses on the Great White Way increased by 80% in the decade before the coronavirus hit and attendance was up 24%. Chances are a teenager knows the “Hamilton” soundtrack just as well as the songs on Billie Eilish’s album.
“Musicals like ‘Hamilton,’ ‘Book of Mormon’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ are bringing a whole new generation to musicals,” said actor and singer Josh Gad, who is adding “Central Park” to a résumé that already includes “Mormon” and “Frozen.” “They’ve made them cool again.”
Once more, with feeling
TV is getting into the act in other ways. A new addition to ABC’s most popular franchise, “The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart,” airing Mondays, has the suitors trying to woo each other through song.
Live musicals have been an annual event for several networks since NBC garnered huge ratings for 2013’s “The Sound of Music Live!” with Carrie Underwood. Other series, like “The Good Fight” and “Riverdale,” are now more prone to include fantasy numbers in which characters give fans the ol’ razzle dazzle.
Amazon’s “Transparent” even ended its Emmy-winning run with an all-musical episode.
“It had to be something so different and so out of the box that everyone would go, ‘Oh, this is spectacular and so interesting,’ ” said star Judith Light. “When you have to sing and dance, there’s a heightened level of emotion. It’s a real joy.”
Queen Latifah, who starred in a 2016 TV version of “Hairspray,” said music can help deliver a deeper performance.
“It can do something for you that some traumatic experience may do for actors to get them to a place where they can cry 14 times in a row,” said Latifah, an executive producer for the recent Lifetime movie hit “The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel.”
Jane Levy doesn’t have Latifah’s background in music. But she found the production numbers helpful in figuring out how to connect to her character Zoey on “Playlist.” The sitcom veteran recalled how she was having problems dissecting a scene until co-star Alex Newell burst into one her solos during a taping.
“Suddenly, everything was crystal clear,” Levy said. “ ‘Oh, this is about how love can be messy and complicated.’ The song explained it in a way that couldn’t in a straightforward scene. I was like, ‘Oh, this is the magic of musicals.’ ”
Everybody dance now
“Zoey” creator Winsberg isn’t taking any shortcuts. He insists that the show’s numbers have more in common with old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies than MTV hits.
“I didn’t want everything to feel like a lot of music videos where it’s so cut or edited within an inch of its life that you can’t actually see the dance play out,” he said. “It’s very important to me that we are feeling the dance and we’re seeing the actors do it.”
That means more work for the cast. Production on “Zoey” had to take a three-day break so Levy could learn six dance numbers that had her grooving to everything from Billy Joel’s “Pressure” to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” in one episode.
Co-star Lauren Graham, who plays Zoey’s repressed boss, wasn’t sure she’d be able to pull off a cover of Kesha’s “TiK ToK.”
“They were like, ‘OK. In this next song, you’re going to get up on the bar and you’ll dance with other people, and then you’ll fly off the bar and some guy will catch you.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” said Graham, best known for “Gilmore Girls,” where the trickiest choreography involved not spilling coffee at the town diner. “But then I did it and it was so powerful. I’m so interested in continuing to learn and try to grow.”
Audiences may learn a lot as well, or at least crack a smile, something that’s in dire need in these dark days.
“I think we’re very tired of cynicism,” Feig said. “It’s very hard to be cynical when you’re making music.”