The Next Live TV Musical: 10 Things to Consider

The Sound of Music Live

Before trying to mount another 'Sound of Music,' there are various hills - and valleys - to conquer

Now that “The Sound of Music Live!” has scaled the Nielsen mountaintop, it seems inevitable we’re going to be seeing more live musicals, just as the 1990s version of “Cinderella” starring Brandy spawned copycats.

But before network programmers start digging through their drawers, there are several factors to consider that might both help replicate NBC’s success and make future productions a little more fully realized than “Sound of Music” could manage, its success notwithstanding:

1. Being kid-friendly is a good idea. Not only did “Sound of Music” bring in a family audience, but it doubtless played better with those who had nothing with which to compare it. And if you’re going to undertake these sort of gambles, providing the widest possible target makes sense — and as a bonus, can introduce kids to the concept of musical theatre that isn’t animated.

2. Stunt casting really isn’t necessary. Stars always help, particularly from a promotional standpoint, and there’s no doubt people watched in part to see how Carrie Underwood handled the role. But with the right projects — “Peter Pan” comes to mind — the producers needn’t pander with “American Idol”-type choices in order to garner attention.

3. Expect diminishing returns. They call them “events” for a reason; they’re rare. And since nobody had tried something like this for a while, it felt special. If two or three more pop up in relatively short order, the laws of gravity suggest they won’t all yield boffo ratings.

4. Think outside the box. Sure, everyone will be looking at the classics, but there are plenty of other options — including, if I’m Disney/ABC, one of the studio’s stage musicals.

5. Scheduling matters. NBC wisely scheduled “The Sound of Music” for early December, offering holiday marketing opportunities while fostering an “If this works, great; if not, no harm done” mentality. The temptation might be to throw the next one on in a more highly trafficked viewing period, which reduces the chances of scoring another breakout number.

6. Live means “live.” NBC got away with it, but airing the program live on the East Coast and delayed on the West Coast seems like a mistake. In this day and age — where social media has eradicated timezones, and award shows are carried live simultaneously — it seems like everyone should have a chance to share in the live experience. If someone throws up on stage, I want to see it, not read about it on Twitter.

7. Don’t forget pay cable. While family-friendly fare might work best for broadcasters, premium outlets can look at narrower and darker productions. The modern version of “Cabaret” for HBO? “Rent” for Showtime? Plus, a premium environment would offer a true theatrical experience, without those five-minute commercial-pod breaks.

8. Think shelf life. Yes, the telecast is live, but as all those “Buy the DVD” promos made clear, ancillary sales are a big part of financing these sort of endeavors. So think about something that people might actually want to watch — and a soundtrack they might want to buy — 15 minutes after it’s over.

9. No, they don’t have to sing, but…. There have been other live productions — including CBS’ fine telecast of “Fail Safe,” featuring George Clooney, in 2000 — and the chance to do live theatre in a TV setting should be a draw to talent. That said, the musical format does offer additional opportunities, and let’s face it, since that’s what just worked, it’s what executives are most likely to copy in the short term.

10. Whatever you do, do not bring back “Smash.”

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  1. Jacques Strappe says:

    Yes, please, please, please, use excellent actors who can carry at least carry a tune or better still who might in fact be very good singers, not good singers who can’t act to save their life. For me, the NBC live version was unwatchable since I couldn’t get beyond Underwood’s horrible, horrible acting–it was a huge distraction (not her fault since she is not a trained actress and has no acting experience to speak of). The intimacy of television (vs viewing a musical in a large theater from distant seating) makes accomplished acting skills even more important.

  2. Ladyhawke says:

    Could we caution that, as with Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady,” that acting, and not singing, does take the highest priority. We can’t always get a Mary Martin, both actress and singer, but Underwood does not cut it as an actress at all, much less someone who is Austrian and has the stress of being out of element to perform. Most great musical productions are remembered for their score, plot, and actors. Let’s not negate the last two in trying to pander to the first one.

  3. Rob Sparrow says:

    Craig and Neal, Producers:
    Please consider Bette Midler for a live “Mame” or “Hello, Dolly.” She’s a live performer, she’s definitely got the stage chops, and she’s totally at the perfect age for both roles. She knocked your TV “Gypsy” out of the park. And why not throw in Cher as Vera Charles in “Mame”? Wow!
    RJ Sparrow

  4. Smooth says:

    Those that can, DO, those that can’t, CRITICIZE.

  5. Jim says:

    Hey everyone.

    Let’s discuss what was good about the program, not what was wrong.

    It is a much better event than watching Myrus Cyrus obscene things on television.

    I wish the networks would try more shows like the SOM.

    Yes it was hard to recreate such a great story and movie, but it was good and not bad.

    I’m just saying!!!!!

  6. #2 – YES. That’s what’s been bugging me a little about all the tweets, blogs, etc., that defend the casting choices. The Sound of Music is such a well-known (and well-loved!) story, that I think people would have tuned in to see it even with lesser-known leads. A less familiar show might need the star power to draw people in, but I just have a hard time believing that a classic like this needed that much help.

  7. Call me, NBC. I’ve got your next musical right here. :) Not a joke!

  8. elderfarkle says:

    Live productions like this are best suited for NETWORK TV. Not everyone can afford Cable TV and those folks should not be disenfranchised or deprived from seeing every worthwhile and special performance that is on television. Quit being so greedy!

  9. Toni says:

    I respectfully disagree. I am in my 8th Decade of life and am familiar other productions of The Sound of Music. I am saddened and troubled by the negative comments I keep seeing by professional critics. Let’s face it was a success. The public (the people who matter) loved it. It was good wholesome, entertainment. I also find it interesting that no statistics were given for older people. Advertisers forget there are some markets that specifically cater to because of the type of products we buy. I’m sure Walmart would dislike loosing all of our business in their pharmacies. As would Walgreens and other chain pharmacies. Old people need to eat and buy household goods too! Major mistake (just like in Pretty Woman). Not all elderly are low income, especially with the Boomer’s coming on-line in the elderly category! NBC ROCKS!

  10. Michael Co says:

    There have been others (although not live). Disney version of “Annie”, Bette Midler in “Gypsy” and Matthew Broderick starring in “The Music Man” are the first to come to mind. There was some discussion of “Mame” possibly with Cher either producing or starring (maybe both) and Reba McIntire reprising her Broadway turn in “Annie Get Your Gun” but nothing seemed to work out for either. With “The Sound of Music” it was nice to see performers singing and dancing on television without it being a competition or an awards show. Kudos to the entire cast for undertaking a full scale theatrical production and, without the benefit of an out of town tryout or six weeks of previews, doing it live within the confines and constraints of a live broadcast.

  11. bgtaylor4 says:

    The commercials were a negative… expected a sponsor or two bringing the production to us us commercial-free… Hallmark and Cadillac (Masters) have done this on major networks… and it is discouraging to read that the only way around this in primetime is to put something racy/tasteless on cable.

    • Michael Co says:

      Unfortunately I think that commercial free programming (even events) on the major networks are long gone. There are no longer just 3 or 4 channels competing for the audience or advertising dollars and giving up a three hour block mid-week would be extremely costly. However, Saturday night, which all of the networks now seem to program with repeats (low viewership and ad rates) might be a place that something like “The Sound of Music” could work with just the natural interruption of a Act One intermission as a commercial break. This could provide some new original family programming for Saturday night, be promoted as having a single commercial break and possibly generate advertising revenue with an “exclusive” buy – promoted everywhere as Chevrolet presents, or. a Hallmark special presentation, etc. it just takes a little thinking outside the box and a bit less fear of failure.

  12. George says:

    I don’t see the big rush to condem the production of this classic. Though the acting maybe could have been better, and the singing was amazing, it was the first opening! The first night! The only night, I know, but still, anyone could have totally blown this production, amature or pro! Tell me what pro hasn’t forgot a line or had to “wing it” on stage.
    Take it for what it was. It was pretty damn good show. I think those guys that put their guts out on the line and they did a good job. I don’t even like musicals and I liked this one. Of course being a hetero-sexual male, doesn’t make me the best judge, but I liked it.

  13. Frank W says:

    Uhhh, Mr. Lowry…I kinda saw your point over the Sarah Silverman imbroglio and stuck up for you…but a live telecast on both coasts? That would be 5PM LA time, or a second performance for 8pm LA time would mean they start all over again just as they finish the East coast! I think you “jumped the snark”(sic) on this one.

    I just want someone with the balls, to keep doing Live shows. As a big fan of the movie, I loved Clooney’s Fail Safe.

  14. I forgot Carrie Underwood was “American Idol” until you mentioned it in your article; I think she has gone on to bigger and better things in the past 9 years. NBC wasn’t thinking “A.I.” in booking Carrie.

    • bgtaylor4 says:

      The irony noted quite early (first commercial break) is that Clarkson (#1 American Idol) is headlining a Christmas special on NBC and here was Underwood (#2 American Idol) doing this event — on NBC and not on Fox. Ironic. More so while seeing numerous plugs for the must-miss, unwatchable Voice.

    • Frank W says:

      They were thinking that she’s a big singing star. Would there be as much publicity without Underwood? They needed a draw for something like this and she brought them in.

      • Amanda says:

        It was already a huge thing before Carrie Underwood was announced. I’d much prefer a production with a lesser known name, but someone who could act. The show title was a big enough draw.

      • cadavra says:

        You really think no one would tune in to watch a new production of “The Sound of Music” without a “name” in the lead? And is Underwood even that big a star outside the AI/country music circles?

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