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Battle of the Live Musicals: ABC Looks to Change the Game With Disney Classics

The broadcast network live musical trend shows no signs of slowing down, with five of the live events currently planned for the 2017-2018 season.

NBC, who pioneered the television events back in December 2013 with its successful staging of “The Sound of Music,” is currently prepping “Bye Bye Birdie” with star Jennifer Lopez for this December, and will air “Jesus Christ Superstar” this April. Fox is doubling down after the success of “Grease Live,” with plans for both a live version of “Rent” and “A Christmas Story.”

The newest player in the game is ABC, which on Tuesday announced it will dip its toe in the live musical waters with “The Little Mermaid.” ABC’s entry into the live musical space could prove to be a game changer, given the network’s access to Disney properties. Robert Mills, ABC’s head of alternative programming, told Variety that the network has been looking to stage a live Disney musical for some time. It was simply a matter of choosing the best moment.

“We really wanted to be in the game as well, and we’re Disney and we have this library that has an endless amount of classic musicals that really play to everyone,” Mills said. “But that’s a double-edged sword because you are Disney, you have to do it right. You’ve got to do it so you’re honoring the brand. It took time to find the right take on this.” “Little Mermaid” will not be a live musical as viewers have come to know them, but will instead feature scenes from the animated film with the musical numbers performed live by celebrities. A similar live show was recently staged at the Hollywood Bowl to great success, serving as the catalyst for the network version. According to Mills, if this show proves successful, a whole crop of Disney films could be headed to the network for a similar treatment.

“That was really the pitch,” he said. “If we do this and we do it right and it becomes one of the singular live events, you’ve launched a franchise.”

Indeed, Disney has no shortage of musicals to choose from, but certain major properties are most likely off the table for the time being. “The Lion King,” for example, was previously adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway show, but Disney is currently in the process of remaking it as a live-action film like it did with “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with the film slated for a 2019 release. “The Little Mermaid” is in line for a remake as well, but it does not currently have a release date. However, there are still plenty of musicals to choose from in the meantime, like “Hercules,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” or even “High School Musical.”

“Anything from that second renaissance era in the early ’90s would be incredible,” Mills said. “And some of the old classics like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ would be fantastic. And we’re kind of in a new golden age now so doing ‘Frozen’ would be a dream.”

It comes as no great surprise that the networks are planning more live musicals, as they have proven to be incredibly popular, both in the ratings and during awards season. “The Sound of Music,” for example, drew a staggering 4.6 rating in adults 18-49 and 18.6 million viewers. “Grease Live” was the next-highest rated, averaging a 4.3 and 12 million viewers in January 2016. In fact, with the exception of Fox’s “The Passion” (1.6, 6.6 million) in March 2016, no broadcast live musical to date has drawn less than a 2.3 and 9 million viewers.

“Grease Live” went on to secure nine Emmy nominations, winning five. Both “The Sound of Music” and “The Wiz Live” won an Emmy each for NBC, with the shows being nominated for three and five of the awards respectively.

The genre has also proven more than capable of attracting A-list talent, with stars like Carrie Underwood, Queen Latifah, Ariana Grande, Vanessa Hudgens, Christopher Walken, and many others appearing in various productions. But it turns out that some stars are reluctant to take on the daunting task of the live show.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of friends who are stars who could be great and they say to us, ‘Look, if you were doing a movie musical, and we could pre-record and lip-sync, sure. But live? So if we hit a bad note it’s there for posterity? We’re not going to go out there without a safety net.’ People are scared to death of that,” Craig Zadan, who has produced all of NBC’s live musicals to date with partner Neil Meron, told Variety in December. “There are a lot of people who want to do these shows, but they don’t want to do them live.”

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt is largely to thank for the live musical boom, with the network head previously saying that “The Sound of Music” was initially a vanity project born of his longtime love of musical theater.

“I think for a while around the building it was known as Greenblatt’s Folly, until we woke up the next morning and saw that 18.5 million people had watched it,” he said. “I would have been thrilled if it had gotten eight or nine million viewers. That would have justified it. But it just kind of exploded.”

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