On Wednesday, NBC announced a plan to stage Hairspray, the musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name, as the latest in their series of Broadway-meets-live-TV broadcasts. Beginning in 2013 with the Carrie Underwood-led Sound of Music special, NBC has drawn huge audiences for its ambitious salutes to theater geekery. The following year, Peter Pan failed to recreate its predecessor’s level of success (blame it on Allison Williams, who is many things, but not Carrie Underwood), but 2015’s The Wiz production proved a smash with viewers and online. Fox has now followed suit, with a live broadcast of Grease scheduled for the end of this month and non-live musical adaptations of Dirty Dancing and The Rocky Horror Picture Show coming down the pike as well.
There’s gold in them thar show tunes, and all the networks want to get at it. The most pertinent question now is which musicals have the potential to be standing-room-only hits, and which would be better left Off-Broadway. Read on for a handful of suggestions that could get couch-potato toes tapping nationwide.
All of the TV-musicals put in production thus far have arrived with a fair measure of brand recognition from popular film adaptations. It’s been 14 years since Bill Condon’s Chicago movie tangoed away with the Academy Award for Best Picture, and horrifying as the passage of time may be, that means we’re just about due for another go with this sexy, dangerous musical. Those two adjectives all but define Chicago, and they could just as easily be selling points as they could be deal breakers. Musicals tend to do well by keeping it light, but the criminal, lustier side of Bob Fosse’s script is exactly what made it such a success on Broadway. Parents may have to put the kids to bed for this one, but an adult audience would be just as receptive as they were to the movie.
Doubling down on the darker-shaded Chicago, Sweeney Todd could make for a Gothic, creepy Halloween treat. While Stephen Sondheim’s hyperverbose lyricism plays best to the highbrow crowd, the basic upscale-horror premise leaves it open to a wide sample of potential viewers. The only matter is finding the right antithetically magnetic creepazoid to assay the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Johnny Depp’s performance in the movie reminded viewers that talent, rather than name-recognition, is the key element in casting a musical for the screen, so any enterprising network hoping to pull this off would have to split that difference. Alan Cumming, a regular fixture of the stage and current crowd-pleaser on The Good Wife, certainly has the pipes and the slightly-off energy the role requires. He’s not quite in the range of Sweeney’s rich baritone, but the man’s a consummate professional. He’ll make it work.
My Fair Lady
The core narrative of Pygmalion has proven highly mutable over the years, refitted most recently for teen date-night audiences in the high-school rom-com The DUFF. The most storied adaptation on the other side of She’s All That, however, remains Lerner and Loewe’s feather-light musical My Fair Lady. The show’s gender dynamics have taken on some tricky implications as recent cultural shifts have rendered its man-civilizes-woman premise decidedly fraught. (Or do the satirical elements make now the perfect time?) Either way, the cheery tunes and golden-age feel could bring such a production the same success enjoyed by close contemporary The Sound of Music. The thinkpiece-industrial complex could have a field day with a project of this nature, too, adding fuel to the publicity fire that networks actively stoke while mounting ambitious specials such as these.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Secretly Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best musical, this rock opera re-imagines the Passion story as a socially conscious ’70s disco getdown. It’s unconventional — this Jesus is less kindly adviser than hot-tempered pop messiah — but not so sacrilegious that it’d turn away the same flyover-state audiences that launched religiously inflected pictures such as Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead into inexplicable box-office smashes. The songs are no less catchy for their dated sound, the potential for costuming could make Ben Vereen’s white-fringe number from the film adaptation look like yesterday’s laundry, and the show contains two meaty roles in Jesus and Judas. The potential for crossover appeal in hiring some tuneful hunk to play our lord and savior could be practically infinite. Just imagine it: sexy Jesus. No, not that sexy Jesus.
Little Shop of Horrors
There’s a lot to love in the spooky-kooky showtunification of Roger Corman’s cheapo horror flick: the three-lady girl-group throwback Greek chorus named Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronette; the hammy homicidal hijinks of unlikely showstopper “Dentist!”; the endearingly janky low-tech puppetry that brings Audrey II to life; the O.G. Audrey’s absurd voice, a dream come true for some comedienne with a malleable set of vocal cords. And of course there’s sweet, pitiful Seymour, the dweebiest hero in the grand tradition of musical theatre. But then, this same wealth of independently entertaining presences makes this show difficult to market. It’s part horror flick, part camp comedy, part straight-up Broadway cheez. As long as some savvy ad executives know how to properly communicate the idiosyncratic pleasures of this oddball gem, it’ll end up somewhere that’s green.
In the Heights
There’s no chance of nation-captivating historic-musical Hamilton coming to TV until it leaves Broadway, which is currently scheduled to happen sometime around 2063. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other smash musical, however? Far more doable. The multiethnic epic of life in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood possesses every ounce of exuberant wit, lyrical dexterity, and bold creativity as his newest triumph, and the largely Dominican-American cast would add a much-needed dose of diversity to the network lineup. And as far as casting goes, keep it simple and get all the Broadway cast members right there on TV. They’ve already mastered Miranda’s nimble fusion of bilingual hip-hop, an estimable feat in and of itself, not to mention the unparalleled dancing. The Hamilton cult would devour it.
Youth appeal is another driving factor behind many of these live-TV undertakings. The previously aired shows skew toward the teen set with casts of ‘now’ celebrities — Keke Palmer, Vanessa Hudgens, and Carly Rae Jepsen all star in the upcoming Grease. South Pacific still has plenty of life in its veins, even though it may be best know by an older set. A classic of Broadway’s golden age, this paean to racial understanding takes the South Pacific theater of World War II as its backdrop. Such a milieu would be perfect for a network (such as Fox, let’s be real) looking to work the patriotic angle to court viewers. And it’s not as if this would be exclusively for greying audiences, either. Get Zac Efron in a sailor suit, and watch the Nielsen ratings rise like teenage blood pressures.