Big TV networks keep on announcing new musical broadcasts, but they still haven't figured out what to do with them.
On Monday, Fox announced the cast for its next live musical production, Rent. And while we now know the answer to the question of who will play Mark, Mimi, Joanne, and Maureen (Jordan Fisher, Tinashe, Kiersey Clemons, and Vanessa Hudgens, respectively) one question remains: have the networks figured out what to do with a musical broadcast?
The TV musical, in its current iteration, anyway, came on the screen with 2013's The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. On paper, it had all of the ingredients necessary for baked-in success: the made-on-television face and voice of Carrie Underwood, Broadway staples and Tony Award-winners Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti, and a warm-and-fuzzy holiday air date in early December. And yet things never quite came together.
While Underwood and her Grammys had already proven her vocal talent, her acting left something to be desired. Despite tepid reviews, ratings were huge, and NBC announced plans to similarly stage a live version of Peter Pan the following year. In 2016, the network continued to franchise live TV with The Wiz Live!, and Hairspray Live!, and have announced a production of Hair for 2019.
The cast of Grease Live Fox
NBC seemed to think that adding the word live and an exclamation point to the titles of these shows would conceal the fact that each broadcast felt plagued by rigor mortis. That's because they were all missing the defining feature of any live performance: an audience. An audience provides the stakes on which a show can bet success. With an audience, the verdict is instantaneous. Even a muffled cough or the sound of someone shifting in a seat would have been enough to give Music a pulse. Instead, the cast performed in the vacuum of a soundstage, with no one to play to but a room filled with canned air. Every crescendo, every pause for laughter—even what, under normal circumstances, would have been a show-stopping performance of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" by Audra McDonald—was met with silence. That silence, so loaded with the melodrama inherent to musical theater, was deafening. A recreated stage production performed for cameras in lieu of people only heightened the sense that something was missing. And so the only aspect of a live performance that successfully translated to the screen was the most awkward and uncomfortable theater going sensation: when the audience fails to respond. Without an audience, why bother broadcasting live at all?
Creating event TV isn't a terrible idea. With streaming services and archives of past hits fighting for viewers' attention, it stands to reason that networks want to give viewers incentive to make an appointment with their big screens. Add to that the potential for simultaneous conversation on social media, and the result is a foolproof formula to be land center stage, in the spotlight.
Peter Pan doubled-down on the television-specific effects, with larger set pieces crafted for the flying lost boy and a CGI Tinkerbell. While Pan offered more nationally recognizable names in casting, like Allison Williams (at the height of her Girls fame) and Christopher Walken, it still lacked the electricity of a live audience. The Wiz fared slightly better, with even bigger names (Queen Latifah, Common, Mary J. Blige, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, and Ne-Yo) along with more fluid stage direction and closely-edited numbers that left little time for the cast to freeze in near-silence, breathing heavily and awkwardly after the more choreographed numbers. 2016's Hairspray Live! upped the game with the talent of Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenowith, and an earnest but understated Ariana Grande, but struggled in its opening numbers with camera errors and missed cues.
Hairspray Live! ( with Ariana Grande ) You can't stop the beat! youtu.be
It was around this time that Fox bid for its own piece of the TV musical game with the unnecessarily subtitled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. Problems engendered from the lack of an audience were exacerbated by the fact that it wasn't broadcast live, though it was presented as a one-night-only event. (That Fox chose to air Rocky Horror, a piece of pop culture known for its participatory elements, without an audience is so egregious and beyond reason that it left this viewer feeling like she was, in fact, under sedation.)
Fox certainly got closer to capturing some kind of energy by pulling back the camera during its live broadcast of Grease to give viewers a sense of the hectic transitions and set changes inherent to theater, if it was a little distracting. It will be interesting to see how they attempt to pump Rent with a similar frenetic spirit, as a rock musical based on La Boheme that takes place amidst the AIDS crisis isn't exactly screaming for the perky interstitial treatment.
There's something beautifully democratic about the TV musical and its ability to bring live theater to those who don't live on a coast. Yet by robbing those viewers of, at the very least, a simulated communal experience, networks like NBC and Fox are denying them an integral part of what makes these shows so exciting, the very impetus for keeping that appointment with their TVs. Erasing all hints of an active crowd, a living breathing entity to react to what's presented on stage, only serves to isolate viewers, which seems anathema to the entire enterprise. Which is not to say it can't be done. Perhaps the most successful in the latest slew of musical broadcasts—in both ratings and critical reception—was NBC's live staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was due in large part but not in totality to the operatic nature of the piece. What did Superstar have that each broadcast before didn't? An audience.
Rebecca Linde is a writer and cultural critic in NYC. She tweets about pop culture and television @rklinde.
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As reprehensible as Jake Paul is as a person, he is innocent in this case
Update 8/6/2020: On Wednesday the FBI raided Jake Paul's home in Calabasas, California in connection with the Scottsdale mall riot. The home is reportedly owned by Paul's friend Arman Izadi, who was also present at charged with misdemeanor crimes following the mall incident.
It's unclear what the basis for the raid was, but the Scottsdale police have turned over riot investigation to the FBI, who are believed to have removed multiple firearms from the Calabasas mansion.
Because it turns out celebrities exist even before we hear about them.
So many celebrities seem to build their entire lives around careers in entertainment.
Good for them. They knew what they wanted to do, and they were actually lucky and talented enough to be successful. But for a lot of these people, it's hard to imagine how they would function in the world without their celebrity status. That's why people freak out when they find out that Taylor Swift can cook. She not only eats people food, she actually knows how to prepare it! Do you think she even washes her own dishes?!
But there is another class of celebrity. People who had full, interesting, and often insane lives before anyone had ever heard of them. People like...
Christopher Walken: Lion Tamer<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NTM1NH0.gB-0fl12hr7J3svFb1dpkBQ-PWSosPnLaQQKxqB-MB8/img.jpg?width=980" id="dbe98" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e99b1bc39579d90f78d4d6de9523f551" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Christopher Walken" /><p>Christopher Walken is known for the intense, contained energy of his performances and... the un<em>ique</em>... cadence... and <em>em</em>phasis of his speech. But long before he was a living, breathing caricature of himself, he had a very different approach to show business. His time as a <a href="https://ew.com/article/2014/12/02/christopher-walken-captain-hook-dancing/" target="_blank">cabaret dancer</a> shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen the way he moves in the music video for Fatboy Slim's "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCDIYvFmgW8" target="_blank">Weapon of Choice</a>," but the fact that Walken was working as a lion tamer in a circus at the age of 16 is completely insane. Of course he downplays it, saying that Sheba the lion was "Very nice. She'd come and bump your leg. Like a house cat," but he was still bossing around a giant predatory cat as a teenager.</p>
Julia Child: Inventor<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTE4MTA2N30.lfQiI4CMgFK3oJYLW1bPvgOy3rZgL8daEMkgYM4Uukk/img.jpg?width=980" id="c5ab9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a75cf85333b55f0a9399231cd3206a9d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Julia Child" /><p>You may know Julia Child for her famous cookbook <em></em><em>Mastering the Art of French Cooking</em>, or for her long-running public television show <em>The French Chef</em>. At the very least, maybe you've seen her portrayed by Meryl Streep in 2009's <em>Julie and Julia</em>. She was an early icon of TV cooking, making it approachable and fun, and her recipes remain popular more than 15 years after her death. But before anyone knew her for her cooking, she was working for the Office of Strategic Services—a forerunner to the CIA—helping to fight Nazis by... inventing <a href="https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2015-featured-story-archive/shark-repellent.html" target="_blank">shark repellent</a>.</p><p>The effort was sparked during World War II in response to sharks attacks on military personnel who were waiting for rescue after ships and planes went down. Child was a member of the team that developed pellets to be included in soldier's rescue kits, with an odor that would keep sharks at bay. There's no telling how many lives those pellets may have saved, but apparently they went on to be used with underwater explosives targeting German submarines—so sharks wouldn't accidentally set them off—and even in space equipment that NASA designed for ocean retrieval.</p>
James Lipton: Pimp<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxODM5ODY4N30.THakQRuLoFrZdysNOoONBwt5WbIFd6kqKmZMo99tMOo/img.jpg?width=980" id="cb82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61c045a63ca5f3a8df7ae6a17197995c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="james lipton" /><p>James Lipton is not quite as famous as some of the people he's interviewed—<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inside_the_Actors_Studio#Guests" target="_blank">basically every celebrity ever</a>—but he hosted <em>Inside the Actor's Studio</em> for 22 years on <em>Bravo</em>, and had an amazing turn as <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwXGPar9kHc" target="_blank">Warden Stefan Gentles</a> on <em>Arrested Development</em>. In his youth though, Lipton had a very different career in post-war Paris. At the time, there was little work available in France, and many women resorted to sex work to get by. Lipton was friends with one such woman, and when he was running out of money and told her that he had to return to the US, she offered him a job. Soon he was <a href="https://parade.com/17599/dotsonrader/inside-the-actors-studio-host-james-lipton-on-his-favorite-interview-and-pimping-in-paris/" target="_blank">working in a bordello as a "mec,"</a> which he differentiates from the American conception of a pimp, "The French <em>mecs</em> didn't exploit women. They represented them, like agents. And they took a cut. That's how I lived." So... not easy, but necessary.</p>
Jerry Springer: Mayor of Cincinnati<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDEzNTkzNX0.h_k9FJugum9ZI55hpU49JC4180Bbzz5-vuHgIGGI3FM/img.jpg?width=980" id="6d534" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f8a8e61f6254ac8be70c23550346ec0d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Jerry Springer" /><p>On the other side of the sex work equation was a young Jerry Springer. Long before he was exposing strangers' dirty laundry to the delight of a hooting studio audience, he was starring in his own <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/1998/03/jerry_springer.html" target="_blank">personal scandal in Ohio politics</a>. He had already served as an adviser to Robert Kennedy, and had a failed run for Congress before he was elected to Cincinnati's City Council in 1971. At just 27 years old, he may not have been ready for a life in politics, and a few years later he was forced to step down after being caught in a prostitution probe, paying for sex work with personal checks.</p><p>Surprisingly, Springer was able to come back from that scandal with a series of honest, apologetic ads that resulted in him resuming his seat on the city council and eventually serving a term as Mayor. He even ran for governor in 1982, before beginning a career as a local news anchor and coining his catchphrase "Take care of yourselves, and each other." At the time he was known for delivering thoughtful editorials, and became so popular that he was given a daytime TV show that slowly transformed, in its chase for ratings, to the pure trash that eventually made him famous.</p>
Audrey Hepburn: Member of the Dutch Resistance<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDIzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjAwODQ4M30.ZrhreORH5cpZ_Rsj09lVySaxzaLoFNE-DHHM9xbQFRE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6f2ab" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd21bb87307e5bb726ce9b73a7494189" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>The original manic pixie dream girl of <em>Breakfast at Tiffany's</em> was always known for her frail beauty, but when she was a growing up in <a href="https://time.com/5582729/audrey-hepburn-world-war-ii/" target="_blank">Nazi-occupied Holland</a>, some of that frailty was probably the result of malnutrition. Despite this, she was a talented ballet dancer, and frequently performed in secretive events known as "black nights," raising money for Dutch resistance fighters. Hepburn was just 15 in 1944, but because she was fluent in English, she was also tasked with delivering food and messages to allied pilots who were shot down by the Nazis. She helped them reach safety, and her youth and apparent innocence kept her safe from Nazi suspicions.</p>
Samuel L. Jackson: Militant Black Activist<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTM1NDg0MX0.KsU1niylFVF0S_9u2v8qX5ircpmJ5Q8S7hf-TejhooA/img.jpg?width=980" id="e89bc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="23b27d5f9a6ec18ed4b6660985d7b342" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Samuel L. Jackson" /><p>Samuel L. Jackson is one of the biggest movie stars of all time. Collectively his films have grossed <a href="https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/how-samuel-l-jackson-became-hollywoods-bankable-star-1174613" target="_blank">nearly six billion dollars</a>—more than any other actor. But back in the late 1960s, his prospects didn't look so bright. As a young student at Morehouse College, <a href="https://web.archive.org/web/20081229063210/http://www.parade.com:80/articles/editions/2005/edition_01-09-2005/featured_0" target="_blank">Jackson joined the Black Power movement</a> following the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson has said that he was in a "radical faction" of the movement: "We were buying guns, getting ready for armed struggle." He found the experience empowering, although it led to his expulsion from college after he and other activists held the school's board of trustees hostage in a dispute over the schools' curriculum and the demographics of its governing board.</p><p>It was his mother's influence that eventually pushed Jackson in another direction. She put him on a plane to Los Angeles and told him not to come back. "The FBI had been to the house and told her that if I didn't get out of Atlanta, there was a good possibility I'd be dead within a year. She freaked out." Jackson spent a couple years doing social work in LA before eventually returning to Morehouse to study drama. "I decided that theater would now be my politics." It was a bold choice for someone who had struggled with a stutter, though by that point Jackson had discovered the <a href="https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/06/samuel-l-jackson-shaft-motherfucker-stutter" target="_blank">therapeutic benefits</a> of shouting "motherf*cker."</p>
Jewel: Survivalist<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjUwNjI0MH0.Y8mEiH18k9U4GVzE8UYOKLqZZtuor1EtrdQvVEzsoGk/img.jpg?width=980" id="d96e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="eb8e0d81489c72d42600fe7436636728" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Jewel" /><p>Jewel Kilcher grew up in a saddle barn in the remote town of Homer, Alaska. While she was a singer from a young age—<a href="https://www.npr.org/2015/09/12/439764172/in-lumberjack-joints-and-coffee-shops-jewel-found-her-voice" target="_blank">performing with her father for lumberjacks</a> in local bars—<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewel_(singer)#Early_life" target="_blank">her early life was hardly glamorou</a>s. They had no running water, a coal stove for heat, and largely had to fend for themselves: "we mainly lived off of what we could kill or can. We picked berries and made jam. We caught fish to freeze and had gardens and cattle to live on. I rode horses every day in the summer beneath the Alaskan midnight sun." It may have been this childhood that prepared her to live out of her car at the age of 19 as she was launching her career in Southern California.</p>
Christopher Lee: Secret Agent<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYwNDI4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTg3MzM5M30.qKjkKyFCwktkOV9Fnf0W73uppSV3ko6xJ9ImPYEXRcI/img.jpg?width=980" id="4ac25" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="600db2000efa3054e51be73b94c640b4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Christopher Lee" /><p>You probably remember Christopher Lee for his portrayal of Saruman in the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> films, but did you know that he also played a crucial role <a href=""Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.”" target="_blank">advising Peter Jackson</a> on the realism of a scene in <em>The Return of the King</em>. Specifically, Lee provided his firsthand knowledge of the sound a person makes when they've just been stabbed. Jackson was directing Lee's reaction in a scene in which Saruman is ambushed, prompting Lee to respond, "Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody's stabbed in the back? Because I do."</p><p>Lee would most likely have gained that knowledge during World War II, when he was a member of the British Army's <a href="https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/02/09/christopher-lee/" target="_blank">Long Range Desert Patrol</a>, fighting Axis forces on the North African Front. He then went on to join the Special Operations Executive, an elite organization involved in espionage and assassination. Most of their work is still classified.</p>
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