TV musicals sing to young women

Raised on Disney, today's girls are drawn to tuners

When ABC introduced “COP ROCK” IN 1990, ONE network executive traced the musical police drama’s failure to myopia in Manhattan and Hollywood. While privileged big-city execs might go see musicals, he noted, most of the great unwashed masses watching television don’t.

Today, however, the TV musical is experiencing something of a renaissance, albeit by moving beyond the gritty mean streets of Steven Bochco’s risk-taking drama and catering to an entirely different demographic: young women and teenage girls, weaned on the resurgence of Disney animated musicals that started shortly before “Rock” began rolling with “The Little Mermaid” and kept churning out tuneful hits (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King”) through the 1990s.

Most of the audience that embraced the “High School Musical” franchise and now rock out to Fox’s “Glee” were still in their princess phase when Disney’s animation revival occurred. And while there’s still a different quality when live-action characters burst into song, the exaggerated tone of teen-flavored fairy tales and romances represents a modest leap from animation.

By that measure, as Bochco acknowledges, “Cop Rock” was not only well ahead of its time but still might be too demanding for the current TV-musical palate. “You have to compare what ‘Cop Rock’ was conceptually with what these other enterprises are today,” he says. “I’m not sure ‘Cop Rock’ would do any better now than it did then.”

As the producer notes, his series was far more challenging than the recent crop of TV musicals — producing five original songs each week, unlike “Glee” or CBS’ short-lived “Viva, Laughlin” (and its superior U.K. inspiration, “Viva Blackpool”), which incorporated already-popular and familiar music.

“Glee” and other youth-oriented projects have also largely woven their stories into settings where music is actually part of the scene — from a high-school glee club to “Hannah Montana” and the Jonas Brothers in their Disney Channel shows to a summer camp for aspiring musicians in Nickelodeon’s “Spectacular!”

“A lot of the success has to do with the marriage of the music to the material, and does it feel organic?” Bochco says.

For all that, there are aspects of the TV landscape now that are far more congenial toward musicals, beginning with studios’ ability to cash in on song downloads — as Fox is doing with “Glee” — and to snip and post musical segments on YouTube or Hulu, helping promote such projects. One can only imagine the show-stopping number in the “Cop Rock” pilot — a courtroom bursting into an original Randy Newman song, with the jury, lawyers and defendant singing, “He’s guilty, judge, he’s guilty” — enjoying a robust viral after-life that couldn’t have been dreamt of two decades ago.

Finally, while the audience for musical theater remains sophisticated and relatively small compared to the average primetime-series profile, the gap between the percentages of folks who attend Broadway shows and those watching the average network drama has significantly narrowed.

“Glee” is deemed a moderate hit with roughly 5% of U.S. homes watching it — and a little under a 4 rating among the key adults 18-49 demographic. By way of comparison, “Cop Rock” was canceled after just 11 episodes with a 7.4 household rating — which, at the time, ranked 80th out of 101 primetime shows.

Bochco actually had a last chance to save “Cop Rock:” Then-ABC Entertainment prez Bob Iger, who now presides over all of Disney, liked the cop part enough that he offered to pick up the show if the producers dropped the music. They didn’t — and hastily cobbled together a finale where a fat lady literally dropped from the rafters and sang, signaling the program’s demise. (There was a happy epilogue for both parties, inasmuch as Bochco delivered ABC an unqualified hit a few years later with “NYPD Blue,” which bared butts but bypassed songs.)

The timing might not be right, even now, for a new squad of singing cops, but the TV environment clearly seems more conducive to such experimentation — albeit in a limited way — than it was in 1990. Still, if the TV musical winds up being defined by the whims of teenage girls, that would be a real crime.

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