‘When I stare off into space, I’m imagining myself in a musical number…And because I do that, so does the show—and by ‘show’, I mean the very popular BPD workbook acronym Simply Having Omniscient Wishes.’
——Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Just as Annie was to Miss Hannigan, so the musical is to television: a problem child.
On stage and screen alike, musicals have always been an acquired taste. Moreso than most other types of narrative, buying into their all-singing, all-dancing conceit requires a huge suspension of disbelief. One common criticism of the genre is that characters suddenly ‘burst’ into song, apropos of nothing, though that’s not technically true. Characters transition from speaking to singing when their feelings are so intense, messy or profound that spoken words alone cannot suffice.
Modern musical theatre (in the Western sense, at least—think Gilbert and Sullivan) emerged in the 19th century. It served as a template for the Hollywood musical boom of the late 1920s and onward, thanks to the advent of sound cinema. Over the decades since, musical films have drifted in and out of style. A string of big-budget duds almost bankrupted several US studios in the 1960s and 70s. But in recent years, audiences have taken a shine to ‘jukebox’ musicals and pop-centric biopics, which leverage the established power of Top 40 tunes to draw crowds off the couch and into cinemas.
And yet narrative-driven musical TV series have rarely clicked with small screen audiences, at least not for the long haul. What does this say about emotional communication, and constipation, for television viewers? Are we too serious and cynical for the levity that singing and dancing bring? Or are laptop and smartphone screens too small to honour the big feelings that thrive in musical theatre and films?
From the chintzy variety shows of TV’s (first) Golden Age, via the music video rage of the 1980s, to today’s competition reality series, television is practically built on song. Despite this proven interest (and, presumably, the significant overlap in target audiences for musical theatre, film and television), musicals rarely find their footing on the modern TV landscape. That wasn’t always the case.
In the 1970s, British playwright Dennis Potter fancied himself a mad, nostalgic, forward-thinking scientist for England’s smallest screens. Experimenting with TV’s formal capacities, his iconic miniseries Pennies from Heaven (1978), The Singing Detective (1986) and Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) feature actors lip-synching to golden oldie pop songs that reveal character depth and/or move the plot forward, as all musical numbers should do.
Are laptop and smartphone screens too small to honour the big feelings that thrive in musical theatre and films?
These ‘serials with songs’ were visually and thematically arresting (Notably, Potter directed none of them, but his creative voice was so radical that they’ll always be remembered as ‘his’). They were embraced by viewers and critics, with the first two series later remade as feature films for American audiences, though a frivolous cleansing of the dark, confronting material cheated both remakes of any real emotion (a recurring theme among musical adaptations). The use of existing pop music positions these shows as prototypes for today’s jukebox musical, but in their own era, their fresh form served as direct inspiration for TV’s most breathtakingly bizarre foray into the dramatic musical series.
Musicals can be split into two categories: backstage and integrated.
In integrated musicals, songs are a character’s inner monologue writ large—think ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’—operating in abstract to the diegesis or ‘story world’. Backstage musicals, however, embed songs within the plot—see Cabaret, A Chorus Line, Rock of Ages etc—requiring less suspension of disbelief, as singing in theatrical settings is commonplace. This cannot be said of the Los Angeles Police Department circa 1990: the backdrop chosen for Steven Bochco’s ill-fated Cop Rock.
Featuring choreographed musical sequences like the gospel singalong ‘He’s Guilty’, and the truly unhinged child trafficking jam ‘Baby Merchant’, Cop Rock was confounding as both a police procedural and (I think? I hope?) a black comedy. A critical and ratings pancake, its eleven ineffable episodes are likely responsible for keeping dramatic musical series off US airwaves for almost twenty years.
In the interim, Broadway infiltrated the idiot box care of one-off musical episodes in popular sitcoms and dramedies. That long list of culprits includes, but is not limited to, Ally McBeal (2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001), That ‘70s Show (2002), Oz (2002), Scrubs (2007), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2008), Grey’s Anatomy (2011), Community (2011), and a two-hour special of Psych (2013) well after the novelty had worn off.
Typically a gimmick deployed in a bid for ratings, musical episodes often feel forced, desperate and awkward (Riverdale, drink some water). That said, they set the scene for a late 2000s spurt of backstage shows that finally brought the serialised TV musical into vogue.
In 2007, two New Zealanders landed in New York City—via HBO—with hopes and dreams of hitting it big as folk singers. Playing on pop tropes and music video clichés, Flight of the Conchords was a breath of fresh, self-aware air. In contrast to the cable channel’s prestige programming—The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, so on—this show was downright daggy and proud of it.
Conchords’ two well-received seasons would spawn contemporaries in the similarly short-lived Garfunkel and Oates and Important Things with Demetri Martin, but as the show finished its stint, another backstage series was already waiting in the wings, ready to become a phenomenon.
To date, Glee is the longest-running serial musical on television, with six seasons airing from 2009–15. Steeped in the energy of a high school show choir, the jukebox format initially used Broadway staples and Billboard hits alike to create broad appeal (several Glee covers featured on the iTunes charts throughout the show’s run). While its exponential melodrama spoke increasingly to tween viewers only, Glee was, in its heyday, a bona fide touchstone. It paved the way for the Live! TV musical fad (that is yet to bow out), along with several other backstage series that aimed to capitalise on its success.
Preoccupied with visual style and/or thrashing familiar needle-drops, they fomented an inauthentic coolness that condescended across demographics.
Smash was, initially, a lauded love-hate letter to Broadway, but its star fell as quickly as it rose in little more than a year. Baz Luhrmann’s disco-tinged The Get Down, set in the South Bronx hip-hop scene of the late 70s, was nixed by Netflix after just one season. And despite being based on a true story, high school drama Rise read like Glee’s gritty reboot, and was as resoundingly unpopular as you’d expect.
Where these shows failed was their over-commitment to artifice. Preoccupied with visual style and/or thrashing familiar needle-drops, they fomented an inauthentic, how-do-you-do-fellow-kids coolness that condescended across demographics.
In his essay ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, film scholar Richard Dyer says that classic cinematic musicals ‘present complex and unpleasant feelings in simple, direct, and vivid ways.’ There’s really only ever been one televisual example that consistently fulfilled that promise.
Co-created by YouTube personality Rachel Bloom, who brought sincerity and empathy to the complicated titular role, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a surprising acquisition for the free-to-air CW network. From 2015–19, it drew consistently abysmal ratings, despite being a critical and cult favourite, and was the first show since Cop Rock to take a gamble on original songs in an integrated framework. Centering on the schemas of Rebecca Bunch—an extroverted lawyer with a heart of gold and a head full of Broadway agitations—the series analysed and amplified women’s desire, gender equality, mental health, menstruation, childhood trauma and more through comedy and song. It’s a fascinating flipside to the aggrandising ‘male genius’ biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, which dominate at the box office. Moreover, it’s arguably the only (American) TV musical to ever genuinely, respectfully and reliably engage the genre’s raison d’être: to express feelings that are too intense, messy or profound for spoken words alone.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is arguably the only US TV musical to ever genuinely, respectfully and reliably engage the genre’s raison d’être.
Of course, some have tried. This year jukebox newcomer Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist sent its hero into an MRI machine where an accident awakened her capacity to psychically intuit other people’s thoughts in the form of famous pop songs (most of which she doesn’t recognise because she’s a lady coder). Zoey wants to carry Rebecca’s torch—going so far as casting Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Skylar Astin as a lead—but it’s plagued by a confusing premise, flat performances, and a soulless reliance on existing music to co-opt any emotional charge.
Other shows have used singing as a narrative and stylistic device sparingly, but to great effect. Kidding emulates the singalong spirit of children’s entertainment to reveal deep, human truths about trauma, healing and hope for grown-ups. Likewise, the The Good Fight’s audacious third season felt like a Sondheim ensemble dramedy disguised as law procedural. From animated shorts explaining NDAs, to stars Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald (both Broadway stalwarts in their own right) duetting to Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’, the show’s spontaneous musical interludes emphasised the unpredictable nature of today’s political climate, and underscored the volatile experience of, well, being alive.
Musicals can be realist and escapist simultaneously. That makes them formally ambitious, often tonally fraught, and undoubtedly one of the toughest genres to land, especially on television. They are an acquired taste, sure, but such a treat when done right.
TV musicals will inevitably fail when they bank on plastic pastiche. Deconstructing the genre’s formal impulses is great, but any smug showboating should be offset by a wholehearted affection for the form (most clearly signposted by writing your own songs).
Singing communicates anxieties that defy mere dialogue. Some shows dose us up with poptimism—inoculating viewers against the dour realm of anti-hero TV and grand old music-man biopics—but they waste their chance to say anything meaningful about our intense, messy, and profound real world. It’s not the medium that matters—just the message.
This piece was a runner up in the 2020 KYD New Critic Award.