by Kevin Bianchi
I did not love A Christmas Story Live.
I did not hate it. I could never hate an honest attempt at making an art form that I love very much more easily, readily and affordably accessible to everyone.
But still, I didn’t love A Christmas Story Live.
I’ve seen A Christmas Story onstage before. And I really liked it. I think it’s charming and funny and does a wonderful job at presenting one package that many can enjoy. I think it’s a fun earlier work by two men who have since made a definitive mark on this era of the American Musical.
But I just didn’t think it worked as a live TV musical. I know, I know. What do I know? Well, I have spent more hours than I care to admit thinking about this. And there is, I think, a delicate formula for what makes a musical a good fit for a TV musical.
One: It must be generally recognizable to the public.
This means it’s gotta be a musical that either has a score that we all know well enough to sing along to (The Sound of Music, Grease) or a likelihood to have been performed by the local high school (Hairspray, The Wiz).
I love going to the theatre and seeing a new musical. But that’s a harder thing to sell to millions of people on their couches on a Sunday night who are debating going to bed because they have work in the morning. *shrug emoji*
Two: It must come with a cast that is set up to succeed.
It is fun to cheer on a breakout performance from a star-to-be (Shanice Williams, Maddie Baillio). It is also fun learning that bonafide stars (Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Vanessa Hudgens) or bonafide vaguely familiars (I can’t think of their names) are going to give us their take on the characters we know and love so well. What is more fun is watching them be really damn good at it (Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski, Jordan Fisher). Or, for us theatre-loving viewers, watching a Broadway staple shine amidst a starry cast (Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Ephraim Sykes). And as much as we all love to hate-watch these things, there’s no masking the disappointment when your fave celeb lets you down during a live TV musical (...eh, I’ll skip these names).
TV musicals thrive when those performing them are in their comfort zones. Yes, artists should strive to grow and expand and learn. But let’s not reinvent a performer’s wheel in front of 10+ million viewers. A live broadcast may not be the time for, say, a country superstar to tackle the most recognizable soprano role in the American canon.
Three: It must not take itself too seriously.
We’re always beat over the head with press interviews of the cast telling us how much pressure there is to “get it right” because they “only get one chance.” And then on the big night, nobody looks like they’re breathing until the finale. That magic feeling of “anything can happen, and we’ll deal with it when it does” is, for me, what has never translated from stage to screen for a live broadcast.
The stand-out performances in every TV musical is always from someone (usually a theatre vet, tbh) who all but winks at the camera because they’re having so much fun. Remember Aaron Tveit swerving through the backlot on a golf cart during Grease Live? Remember Laura Benanti turning a cross to exit into an entire three act play in The Sound of Music Live? And you cannot possibly have forgotten the thrill of watching Ana Gasteyer have the time of her goddamn life on Sunday night. I want all three hours of every TV musical to feel like that.
So… what? We restrict the TV musical to titles that are already ingrained in America’s brain? With (if we’re stunt casting) scores and books that are more accessible to pop stars and celebrities who can kinda sing? Fluffier shows that enable the actors to have some fun while they’re doing them.
Yeah. I think so. For now.
Why not a Footloose Live? Why not an On Your Feet! Live? A Little Shop... Live? Why not a Literally-Any-Disney-Musical Live?
Oh. Please, please, please let us have an All Shook Up Live. Please.
Or not. I’ll be tuning in to watch every single one of these things regardless.