overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

We're Gonna Live Forever:
The Made-for-TV Musical, from A to Xena

by Jenni Powell

What is a "made-for-television" musical? Before I explain what it is, let me say clearly what it isn't. It isn't the PBS Presentation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny Osmond. It isn't Britney Spears in Concert. It definitely is not American Idol (sorry Justin, you're no Michael Crawford).

There is no audience clapping between numbers, the scores are generally original or comedic parodies, and the results are... well, it's been a bumpy ride.
Whether integrated into an already existing series or put together as a musical "special," the made-for-television musical is programming put together for the express purpose of consumption by television viewers. There is no audience clapping between numbers, the scores are generally original or comedic parodies, and the results are... well, let's just say it's been a bumpy ride.

The Past
Televisions musicals received the kiss of death from the very beginning. In the 1950s, a statement was issued by Paddy Chayesfsky, one of early American television's most consistently successful writers. Chayefsky wrote that "lyrical writing, impressionistic writing, and abstract expressionistic writing are appalling in television whereas they might be gauged exciting in the theater." This opinion was held by many of early television's writers, producers, and directors in a time when many of these same individuals had begun their careers in radio or the theatre. This demonstrates how different this new medium of television was considered, especially given that at the time of television's infancy, the Hollywood movie musical was in its prime.

Despite the strikes against it, the musical inevitably made its way onto the small screen. This was mostly due to the fact that at the time television was really taking root in the 1930s, the Hollywood film musical was big business. Television attempted to piggyback on this popularity with limited success. This was due mostly to the vast differences in the mediums: film musicals were viewed in a public room on huge screens while television was viewed in private on a smaller-than-life screen. Movie musicals at this time were huge sweeping affairs designed to distract Americans from their depression-era troubles. This did not often translate well to a tiny screen on a small piece of furniture, often viewed privately in the home.

It wasn't until the 1950s that television executives began to realize that if the musical were to take any sort of foothold in television, it would have to do it in its own way and not attempt to recreate the successes of film. Thus, the television musical "special" was born. These were programs created specifically for the consumption of television audiences, with vast marketing campaigns created for the purpose of promoting them. This idea was instigated by NBC executive Pat (Sylvester) Weaver in 1954 as a way of drawing away faithful viewers of television series like I Love Lucy. He was responsible for the highly successful March 1955 broadcast of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. NBC claimed that 65 million people watched this program when it first aired, making it the most-watched television program of that time.

It wasn't long before series television decided to cash in on the musical special's success. In 1956, CBS made an attempt to lure its audiences back to Lucille Ball by announcing that it would include a musical episode in its European tour segment of I Love Lucy. "Lucy Goes to Scotland" was inspired by Vincente Minelli's film Brigadoon and the television broadcast of Peter Pan. Though highly successful, it did not lead to further musical episodes in this or any other television series.

In fact, the next series musical episode did not appear until the 1960s, with The Dick van Dyke Show's Christmas episode called "The Allen Brady Show Presents..." Gilligan's Island incorporated several show musicals into its premise: one titled "Don't Bug the Mosquitoes" which concerned a Beatles-esque rock band that found its way to the island and another called "The Producer" in which the castaways put on a production of Hamlet with the music of Carmen.

There have been a few efforts to create entirely musical television series. Two examples are That's Life in 1968-69 and the infamous Cop Rock in 1990. That's Life ran for one season on ABC and followed the relationship of a young couple, played by Robert Morse and E. J. Peaker, as they met, got married, bought a house, had a baby, etc. Although some of the musical material was original, composed by Elliot Lawrence and Martin Charnin, many of the songs were Broadway or popular standards. It featured about six songs in each hourlong episode, as well as guest stars such as George Burns, Ethel Merman, Tony Randall, Phil Silvers, Robert Goulet and Liza Minnelli. Cop Rock consisted of a series of hourlong crime dramas set to mostly newly composed music by Randy Newman, in various popular styles of the time. The program was designed to be deliberately artificial, with singing policemen, lawyers, criminals and juries.

Neither show had much commercial success. That's Life ran for only a single season from September 24, 1968 to May 20, 1969 while Cop Rock didn't even make it that long, running from September to December of 1990. Both shows were overwhelmingly expensive to produce and were the subject of quite a bit of public ridicule. One major difference between these musical series and most of the previous musical episodes were the series' settings in reality. Up until this point, musical episodes were either clear parodies or set within a fantasy setting, such as a dream sequence. A good modern example of this is the musical episode "Once More, With Feeling" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the purpose for the singing was clearly defined as a spell placed upon the town of Sunnydale. Apparently, the public needs a reason for the music; when an entire courtroom breaks out into song for no apparent reason, it jerks the television audience into a state of complete absurdity, bringing a level of confusion that detracts from the enjoyment of the program.

But then, there was Fame. Fame ran for six seasons in the 1980s and followed the stories of the students and faculty of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. This show succeeded where the others failed because of the believability of the situations the main characters were in. Performing arts students were doing what they do... performing. Not to mention the inherent sex appeal of composing a cast of attractive singers, dancers and actors versus an everyday couple and singing cops.

The Present
The novelty of the television musical episode has definitely made its presence known in modern-day programming. Here is a quick smattering of musical episodes aired in the last five years:

Xena Warrior Princess: Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire
Aired Jan. 17, 2000. Xena arranges a battle of the bands to settle a fight over Terpsichore's lyre. This was actually the second time this fantasy series did a musical episode.

The Hughleys: Rogers and Hughleystein's Two Jacks and a Beanstalk
Aired Feb. 25, 2000. A musical retelling of the classic fairy tale and a spoof on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Included inspired original lyrics such as, "Nothing fills your stomach like a meal; unless you are that chick Ally McBeal".

Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost
Aired May 22, 2000. Original score written by Randy Newman, the cast of this episode included several Broadway musical veterans.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling
Aired Nov. 6, 2001. For this musical episode, Buffy battles a demon that sends people into all-out song and dance routines. With original music and lyrics by Joss Whedon, fans responded so well to this episode that a soundtrack CD was released.

Even Stevens: Influenza — The Musical
Aired Jan. 25, 2002 Composed by series regular Jim Wise, who plays Coach Tugnut, this episode involves a young girl's bout with the flu and how she gets through it by dreaming of what might happen at school if she bluffs her way out of a forgotten assignment.

Oz: Variety
Aired Feb. 10, 2002. And here you thought this show was only about violent, naked inmates. Now they sing, too! Several Broadway musical veterans took part in this episode, including the legendary Rita Moreno.

Seventh Heaven: Red Socks
Aired Feb. 14, 2005. Isn't is nice that the most recent entry in the musical episode history books is considered by most to be one of the most clumsy and inept musical episodes to date? The highlight was probably Thomas Dekker's performance of "Accentuate the Positive" but on the whole, the cast made a mockery of some great, classic tunes.

The Future?
Could a musical series survive in the modern television market? Is Chayefsky's proclamation of the musical being "appalling in television" indeed true? It would definitely be quite a challenge, considering the musical's rocky television past. But then again, much has changed and one can never underestimate the power of learning from past mistakes. The success of musical episodes such as "Once More, With Feeling" is undeniable and perhaps with the right format and a super-snazzy marketing campaign, an episode such as this could be stretched out into an entire series.

The two biggest hurdles are budget and believability. Musicals are expensive, which is why most series only take them on once or twice in their entire runs. But unless they cost more than shooting on location in Hawaii and having to blow things up every other episode (including characters), it's definitely feasible. A strong writing team with extensive musical backgrounds is key. I wonder if Randy Newman and Joss Whedon would ever agree to join forces...

A girl with songs in her heart can dream, can't she?

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