Everything That's Wrong With Musicals on TV

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Are you as tired of lazy generalizations about musical theater as I am? With Broadway’s move onto both the cinema and television screen, these generalizations have only gotten sloppier. For starters, we could at least separate the films from the television series. Critics speak as if Glee, Pitch Perfect, and Smash were all the same thing – and that thing they condense them into is deemed, ultimately, pretty awful. With the heavy anticipation for Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, I’ve only been reminded of how very boring the Broadway backlash can be. Over at Grantland’s 2012 Oscar Roundtable, we were told that, “Gloriously, there doesn’t even seem to be anything ridiculous in the running for a nomination at this point, unless the Les Mis hype is coming from the same unfortunate place that leads people to watch Smash.” I mean, I guess Les Mis and Smash are the same thing, and I guess their viewers can’t tell a star-driven remake of a famous rock opera apart from a television series about an unknown musical performed by unknown stars.

In part, I blame Glee. Ryan Murphy’s show has tried, in many ways, to bring showtunes to the masses, but what it’s mostly done is confirm the old stereotypes about showtune lovers. As such, even with the added ammunition of Glee, the jokes against the Broadway-obsessed don’t seem that novel or clever. Murphy and Glee probably mean well, but what that show has done is spread a whole lot of lies about what Broadway is, while hardly touching on the subject of its title. (Glee has a shoddy way of showing viewers what a glee club actually is; while traditional glee clubs usually go without instrumental accompaniment, there is a whole lot of orchestral backing on the show.) For even the casual hate-viewer of Glee, Broadway seems to be the landing ground of hysterical high school doofuses who can’t tell the difference between glee and a cappella club, and whose repertoire – pop or Broadway – doesn’t extend further back than the mid-’80s.

I still listen to Glee songs every now and then, but never for their interpretations of “On My Own” or “Defying Gravity.” If I wanted pop renditions of Wicked, I would just listen to the original cast recording of Wicked. Their arrangements for “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You” and “How Will I Know,” on the other hand, are far more compelling, but this kind of remixing is more reminiscent of a cappella. If only Glee would drop the instrumentals – but then one would really have to think about what Glee is, and moreover, what it represents to the everyday viewer.

Here are some thoughts towards improving Glee, and musicals on TV in general:

1. If you want to make a television show about a cappella, then I think you should just go for it. All the way. No instruments. Like Pitch Perfect! Remember that film? Pitch Perfect was great, and way more accurate about its scene than Glee. You’d have to differentiate between high school and collegiate a cappella because, again, different scenes. Glee loves its show-offs and competitions, which smacks of a cappella, except a cappella doesn’t indulge in instruments. If you’re a vocal jazz club, that’s different. But remember step one: no instrumentals.

2. This leads to the possibility of Pitch Perfect transitioning to a television series, which, I think could absolutely work. Even the film version keeps referencing the rich history of its cappella world – not just in general, but to each school and group specifically. Who won last year? Who’s not making it into the leading group again for the third year in a row? Even more than a musical, acapella calls for seriality and repetition, and what is television but a continual remixing of the same old?

3. Are we surprised that Smash is more realistic about life on Broadway than Glee is? Some people have complained that it’s even a little too insidery, but if Smash were really to emulate the processes of Broadway, then we’d be seeing a lot more rehearsing. Instead of the movie montage, you’d actually have to stay with these characters as they worked at their craft, week after week. If you knew how much these people rehearsed, you’d understand the investment in Broadway, trust me. Dreams wouldn’t come true, runs of the show would never make it even out of town, and they’d be back at the piano, thinking of something better than a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Smash is kind of racist though, so at least they’ve got that right.

3. Smash is not Les Mis.

4. Les Mis is not Pitch Perfect.

5. Smash is definitely not Les Mis.

6. A film is not a television show.

7. Medium does, however, to some extent determine what one does and, importantly, can do with content, which is perhaps why musicals are still most successful when performed on a live stage. We know what we’re getting ourselves into when it’s in a theater (which might also help to explain why Broadway has been so stale these past decades, but that’s another conversation). Both theater shows and films are contained – when they start, they know exactly how and when they will end. People can love the film versions of Chicago and Cabaret and never fret that, sometime in Season 3, it’s going to get really, really bad. But television also has its perks! It can get away with more. Just imagine what could have been if HBO had picked up Kathryn Bigelow’s Broadway-inspired The Miraculous Year. But, even outside of HBO, think of what could be if Murphy combined Glee with American Horror Story. I would love a richly campy horror musical made for television.

8. This leads to the question of drag. American Horror Story is a more queer show than Glee, and that’s disappointing, considering the legacy of theater and drag. Television could do such imaginative things with costumes and character changes. Like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the television musical could showcase different kinds of bodies each week.

9. Television also favors segmentation in a way that films do not. Even musicals that are sung-through have clearly marked individual songs, and I think the televisual medium is actually pretty congenial to conveying them. Glee and Smash have, to some extent, embraced this – their episodes are often framed as showcasing new songs, and these songs frequently lead directly into the commercial break. The beauty of the song – that scene of liberated singing – is that it allows for breakages, intermissions, energetic interruptions that conceal narrative impasses, and even interruptions into these impasses. This break isn’t a constraint to narrative – but a method for narrative to get away with what it often slyly propounds.

10. Moreover, you know how television doesn’t always make sense? How the plotlines don’t all fit and the loopholes send conspiracy theories running mad even after the season is over? Think about what you could do with implausibility when you introduce song and dance. Suddenly anything can be possible, and we should try seriously to examine the sweep of these possibilities.