By Marc Snetiker
May 24, 2018 at 11:35 PM EDT
Credit: Casey Stouffer; Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

There’s a reason why amateur theaters across the country have spent the better part of the last century performing musicals set in royal fantasyscapes or nondescript slices of small-town America where locals sing entire songs about the arrival of a train. Put your finger on a U.S. map, and in any given state you’ll likely find a high school mounting a production of The Music Man or Bye Bye Birdie or Oklahoma! or Grease, or Into the Woods or The Wizard of Oz or Once Upon a Mattress or Cinderella. The popularity of these choices is not just because these shows contain classically accessible scores and vast ensemble opportunities and limited necessity for elusive male dancers; the School-Appropriate Musical is a very specific type of musical, one that proved its initial merit in the Broadway lexicon as an original piece of fine art but transcended to immortality by finding happy inclusion in the limited catalog of shows deemed safe and friendly by PTAs. It’s no insult, to be clear — these shows are beloved, and though they may carry a patina or the scent of squeaky cleanliness where they once smoked with fire and excitement, their frequent production is the most important way that American musicals are kept alive.

Less than five years ago, NBC found another way: with 2013’s The Sound of Music, the network singlehandedly ushered in a modern advent of live televised musicals, kicking off a renaissance with one of the most family-friendly musicals of all time. Today, that same network announced that its next live musical is Hair, the 1968 sexual-revolution musical that shocked audiences with, among other things, full-frontal nudity from its cast.

Friends, this can go one of two very different ways.

Family-friendly has long been the name of the game when it comes to the very unartistic but regretfully important business of musicals. Winning the favor of family approval is a goal across the various media where a musical appears: Broadway shows make noise by wooing critics but they make rent by wooing families; movie-musicals don’t care as much for the former, but overwhelmingly perform with the latter, evidenced by things like Mamma Mia! and The Greatest Showman becoming the multiplex mega-hits they were; and community theaters will forever favor singing music teachers over sex-positive draft dodgers for content alone (I guarantee high schools would perform The Music Man far less frequently if the script called for Harold Hill to pull out his penis in the middle of “Shipoopi”).

On the live TV musical front, the game is the same. After NBC’s 2013 experiment proved to be a ratings juggernaut, advertisers went wild for 2014’s follow-up Peter Pan and beyond; the extremely sellable concept was, as one ad sales exec called it, “a great family event.” And it was no accident that this whole grand trend launched with a piece like The Sound of Music, which in some regards is the ultimate sanitized story: a show about war and Nazis and terrorized nuns, dressed up in enough floral curtains and lederhosen so that suddenly the most dangerous thing that could possibly happen in a production of The Sound of Music is Friedrich cracking on “So Long Farewell.”

Since NBC’s was a mostly pitch-perfect representation, the crazy chain soon followed, with each ensuing live musical steering clear of fixing the ain’t-broke appeal to the nuclear, ad-friendly demo. The Sound of Music made way for Peter Pan, followed by The Wiz, and then Fox interjected with Grease, which was so technically superior that it in turn spawned another wave of musicals, this time off the proscenium, like Hairspray and A Christmas Story. The argument could be made that half of these shows are secretly mature, and yet those arguments weren’t the loudest voices at the time; instead, the phrase kept being tossed around for every single one: “family event.”

I recall, years ago, writing a little sidebar for EW in which I suggested other likely family-friendly candidates for the live-musical treatment. Bye Bye Birdie was one of them (NBC only recently scrapped plans for it this fall, presumably because Nick Jonas and J. Lo’s schedules didn’t align); The Music Man was another (announced, but subsequently never produced). I added to the mix shows like Annie, Joseph, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, the first act of Into the Woods… surefire musicals that you could envision as easily on primetime as you could in any parochial town. Because, wasn’t that the point?

But the strange and exciting situation we now find ourselves in suggests otherwise. The shows being selected for the networks’ next slate of musicals look drastically different from the Sounds of Music and Peters Pan (Peter Pen?) of the past. Far from it, in fact. NBC announced its intention to mount Hair, a groundbreaking 1960s rock musical about sex, drugs, racism, anti-war protests, and hippie counterculture. Fox has already slated its broadcast adaptation of Rent, the Pulitzer-winning epic about bohemian artists fighting off addiction, poverty, and AIDS. Even NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, a recent success, was a selection that was fairly bold (especially since we’ve all barely recovered from The Passion).

Compared to their network predecessors, Hair and Rentare significantly heavier, abundantly more provocative, bearing themes that are vastly more difficult to justify for all-age viewing and even harder for ad sales to stomach (“Chick-fil-A kindly requests we not appear in the same hour as Mimi’s overdose”). And it’s all exciting, yes, but by the same stroke, the selection of these shows will be a major test for audiences, for advertisers, and most especially, for the network.

They know that Rent features a gender-queer character dying of AIDS, right? And that Hair is famous for its act-one finale in which the entire company gets naked onstage? These are shows that raise immediate flags upon their announcements over potential censorship, and understandably so. NBC is not about to get decimated by the FCC for letting a radical activist go full-frontal on the same night they show Little Big Shots. Heaven knows what Fox, now demonstrably interested in luring conservative dollars after the craven cash-grab of Last Man Standing, has in store for the fanatically-worshipped libretto of Rent; you’d better believe Jonathan Larson did not die for Mark Cohen to sing “mucho mastication” during “La Vie Boheme.”

It’s easy to be skeptical, given what Fox did to Rocky Horror, given what local theaters have done for years to Hair, given what high schools are already doing to things like Spring Awakening and far more innocuous titles. Spamalot couldn’t have a gay character in Pennsylvania. Pippin was too sexy for New Jersey (yes, really). Ohio found some reason to be upset about Legally Blonde. A community theater (again in Pennsylvania) was shut down because it dared to show a non-speaking gay couple in the background of a scene from Big Fish. If musicals need to be rewritten like Kidz Bop lyrics in order to be palatable to certain local audiences, then one can only imagine the precautions a national television network might take to satisfy a wider demo.

And yet, they chose Hair. They chose Rent.Perhaps the reason I’m excited is because these selections didn’t seem plausible, certainly not in this first decade of the live-musical lifespan. Five years ago you could joke that a network would only do Rent if it ran out of 20 years’ worth of “safe” musicals — and yet here we are, and nobody’s even done Annie yet! Admittedly, these controversial shows are still catchy, money-savvy ratings splashes, but it’s not like we find the networks in dire straits being forced to choose progressive musicals. Fox certainly didn’t choose Rent because the country is getting any more tolerant; if anything, it’s a statement in and of itself that these shows actively don’t cater to the portion of Americans who think racism and homophobia is just their bringing up-ke.

But censorship still exists, and so we bide our time and wait to see what makes the cut, and then evaluate whether the wound was too deep. To lose a line in Rent because of profanity or to axe the obviously-unairable brazen nudity of Hair… sure, it will be upsetting, but will it be crippling? Depends. What’s most important for these productions, and where the networks could go very right or so very, very wrong, is that these shows be allowed to deliver their statements with the least amount of dilution or interference. The original texts of Rent and Hair changed art and culture and minds; they have a built-in edge that’s specific to their time, but their messages of love (and, in Hair‘s case, anti-war) have the ability to be applied to modern contexts, and that’s when the power of broadcasting a live musical can really be magnificent. “Finale B” and “Let the Sunshine In” stand to offer a cathartic experience for viewers across the country if those songs are allowed the same narrative build that comes with their original packaging.

The suspense will be in whether the networks try to have it both ways, patting themselves on the back for choosing cultural explosions but watering them down into two-cent firecrackers. You don’t get to do Rent and make it pleasant. Hair is not just hippie dress-up. You don’t get to take business-minded liberties when you’ve chosen two of the most important shows in musical theater history.

With the right freedoms, these shows can add something to the next wave of live musicals that the first wave did not: danger. Because musicals are dangerous— they deal with death and destruction (Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors), abusive relationships and complicated decisions (Carousel, Cabaret, A Chorus Line), fallen heroes and fractured families (West Side Story, Company, Dreamgirls, Ragtime). But their danger exists to make you think twice, about the good and the bad. The best musicals earn esteem in our culture not just because they’re compositionally brilliant, but because they’re subversive mirrors of the world around them. They sing about things that we can’t speak about — and America has never been in more dire need of help in figuring out how to have a conversation.

And yes, we’re probably still going to get three live productions of Mamma Mia! before we’ll ever get Les Mis Live, but I can dream a dream.