Hitting the high (and low) notes
The live TV musical appears to be here to stay. Once or twice a year, Fox and NBC and now, ABC, bring together a cadre of talent and a beloved musical theater property to create a live television event that stands out in an era of streaming and binge-watching. The results have ranged from glittery explosions of performing prowess to underwhelming hate-watch fodder. Here we present every live television musical of the modern era, ranked: from truly terrible to s’wonderful. (We’ve excluded broadcasts that weren’t live, like Rocky Horror and Dirty Dancing.)
[This gallery was originally published April 2, 2018, and most recently updated Nov. 5, 2019.]
10. The Passion, Fox (2016)
This one barely qualifies as a live musical, since it was essentially the story of the Passion of Jesus with some reworked pop songs thrown in. Singers portrayed biblical figures and performed contemporary songs in new contexts: For example, Chris Daughtry played Judas and did a rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.” Featuring stagey narration from Tyler Perry, the event came off as a tired, lackluster mess.
9. Peter Pan Live, NBC (2014)
Allison Williams warned us that we could not hate-watch Peter Pan Live, and yet, that’s what many people did. Peter Pan was previously filmed as a live musical in 1955, starring Mary Martin as the Boy Who Never Grows Up, but the modern iteration just couldn’t capture the magic of the beloved fairy tale. The production felt miscast and woefully low-energy, while also coming off as too stagey in its presentation. Acrobatics and aerial tricks couldn’t save the day, nor could any amount of faith, trust, and pixie dust.
8. The Sound of Music Live, NBC (2013)
Featuring Carrie Underwood as beloved nun-turned-governess Maria, The Sound of Music Live kicked off the modern era of live television musicals — and it was so poorly received (and executed) that it seemed the concept might be dead on arrival. Many viewers responded negatively to Underwood’s performance in a role made legendary by Julie Andrews. However, this early stumble does rank slightly ahead of Peter Pan Live purely by virtue of Tony winner Audra McDonald’s goosebump-inducing rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.” Without that, we might’ve been asking how you solve a problem like the live television musical.
7. The Little Mermaid Live, ABC (2019)
It’s almost unfair to call this a live musical since half of it was simply a broadcast of the 1989 animated film. In between the film’s speaking scenes, the proceedings transitioned to live performances of musical numbers that offered incredible production value on a scale only Disney can offer. Queen Latifah (Ursula) and John Stamos (Chef Louis) hammed it up and reveled in the cartoonish-ness of the task at hand, and Auli’I Cravalho offered up a lovely, understated on Ariel, complete with full mermaid tail. But while the set design was beautiful and the choreography was stellar in its brief featured moments, the performers were overshadowed by the animated film and the overwhelming spectacle of it all. We wanted to be flipping our fins over ABC’s entry into the live musical space, but instead it left us as soggy as being stuck under the sea.
6. A Christmas Story Live, Fox (2017)
Although this production drew the ire of critics and viewers alike, much of the fuss seemed rooted in disappointment that it couldn’t live up to the original 1983 holiday film. It lacked the energy of a live studio audience but made spectacular use of the Warner Bros. backlots to bring a snowy 1940s Midwestern Christmas to life. Matthew Broderick imbued the narrator role with a newfound sense of emotion, while Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer got to show off their song-and-dance skills. A Christmas Story Live wasn’t loved by audiences, but it brought some genuine holiday warmth to the live-musical landscape.
5. Hairspray Live, NBC (2016)
Being about television (among other things), Hairspray lent itself quite well to a small-screen live adaptation. Harvey Fierstein reprised his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad, while Kristin Chenoweth and Jennifer Hudson brought their stellar vocal chops and stage presence to the proceedings. Link Larkin (Garrett Clayton) felt a bit wooden, and though Ariana Grande has a stellar vocal range, her pop voice was ill-suited for the supporting role of Penny Pingleton. And with all due respect to the talented Darren Criss, we never need to see a host for a live musical again. Still, you couldn’t stop the beat when it came to the infectious enthusiasm of this live broadcast.
4. Rent Live, Fox (2019)
It seems almost unfair to rank a production which was forced to throw its playbook out the window and primarily air recorded footage from the dress rehearsal due to an actor injury and no understudy. Rent is a musical that doesn’t lend itself easily to network television — the raw, visceral edges and more provocative storytelling require sanding down to air on primetime. This production certainly poured its heart into bringing the cultural phenomenom to life with a stellar turn from Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen and the always fantastic Brandon Victor Dixon offering his Broadway chops as Collins, but for most of the cast, it felt slightly underplayed — whether that was because it was a dress rehearsal or their acting choices remains unclear. Clips of the makeshift concert they performed live that night instead are more transcendent and inspiring than the largely anemic, low-energy rehearsal that aired — though the show’s most powerful sequences at the Life Support meetings and Angel’s death remained emotionally exquisite tearjerkers in spite of it. Rent probably never belonged on TV in the first place, but it still succeeds more than the 2005 film adaptation because of its scrappy feeling — one that could’ve felt more vibrant under different circumstances (and less censoring). Bonus points for its killer finale which incorporated the bulk of the original Broadway cast in a nod to the show’s roots that often feel missing from these adaptations. This live musical resoundingly proves there’s no day but today, even if that day misses the mark at times.
3. The Wiz Live, NBC (2015)
When NBC aired The Wiz Live in 2015 as the follow-up to Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, some viewers feared it might be yet another flashy failure. Fortunately, it marked a resounding victory for NBC. Although the production felt a bit too stuck in the proscenium arch of the theater, it delivered on vocal moments, including newcomer Shanice Williams’ powerful belts as Dorothy, Amber Riley’s showstopping turn as Addaperle, and Mary J. Blige’s evil delights as Evillene. The Wiz proved it was possible to deliver the magic of live theater on broadcast television in ways its predecessors did not. In other words, it eased on down the road and into our hearts.
2. Grease: Live, Fox (2016)
When it aired in 2016, Grease: Live was quickly declared the gold standard of live musicals. The broadcast was the first to capitalize on the live element while truly making use of the television format — for instance, using “Those Magic Changes” to underscore Danny Zuko’s own changes. It was a high-energy affair that captured the vitality of live theater, while still being a viewing experience that would only be possible on TV in its use of locations, closeup angles, and more. Plus, the entire proceedings were just a sheer delight to watch — from the talents of Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko to Vanessa Hudgens’ genuinely affecting portraying of Rizzo to the joys of seeing original movie cast members join in on the fun. Then, that outdoor carnival at the finale really sent us out on a bang. Grease and live musical greatness go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
1. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, NBC (2018)
NBC took what was once a rock opera concept album and turned it into one of the most vital and electric live musicals to date. The broadcast was the first to clock in under three hours, something other live TV musicals would be wise to take to heart. John Legend brought his signature smooth pipes and deep emotion to the role of Jesus Christ, while Sara Bareilles delivered a stellar performance as Mary Magdalene. But what really worked? They finally turned to Broadway instead of film and television stars for their talent. Three words: Brandon Victor Dixon. The musical theater vet stole the show with his heartbreaking, anguished portrayal of Judas. And to top everything off, the lighting and set design delivered an ending that was, honestly, a religious experience.