What Live TV Musicals Can Learn From Grease’s Success

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Go big. Photo: Kevin Estrada/FOX

Well, these live musicals have certainly turned things around. After the lifeless and bizarre Sound of Music came the truly baffling Peter Pan, and it seemed like society was hurtling faster and faster toward the garbage end-times than previously measured. But then, a few weeks ago, The Wiz shocked the nation with its quality and vision. Then came Grease: Live, and suddenly the idea of doing a live musical on network television made a tiny sliver of sense. All hail director Thomas Kail: The big takeaway from last night is that more is more. Think big. Then … think bigger.

Because Grease: Live wasn't better than The Wiz by most other standards. The performances on The Wiz were probably on average a little better (especially lead versus leads), and the choreography less a direct lift from the movie versions. The increase in scale and scope is the distinguishing factor here — the number of sets alone is staggering. And contrary to what one might expect, Kail didn't make it look easy: He made it look hard, because it is hard. At commercial breaks we could catch glimpses of just how sprawling the sets were, and the bumpers mentioned the hundreds of crew members, highlighting a few feats of stagecraft. At the finale, there was that (goofy) golf-cart ride through the lot, showing just how expansive the production was. Even as the crummy drag-race scene failed as a part of the musical itself, it wound up working as a metanarrative, reminding viewers that this is was a real endeavor. Part of live theater is that you do see them sweat, often literally. After big dance numbers, everyone's panting. After tricky moments, sometimes you get lucky and spot a tiny flicker of relief and pride on a performer's face. A sensation of low-key danger, the little part of you that wonders if things are about to veer into catastropheville, that's part of it.

That's something we don't get a tremendous amount of on television. It's part of SNL's lifeblood, certainly, and NBC's Undateable is trying to harness this exact energy by broadcasting live. But live TV is so rare that even shows with "live" in their title — for example Jimmy Kimmel Live — are not live, and no one expects them to be. The live portions of reality-contest shows like American Idol are so canned and predictable that maybe once every five years do they produce an authentically affecting human moment. Grease: Live wasn't there to make us cry or take us on a journey or anything grandiose, but it did elicit a sensation of wow. That's a feat.

Given the popularity of these TV adaptations, we're looking at a good, long lifespan for programming of this nature, and if Grease can set us on a path for success, then enduring its DOA jokes will have been worth it. What does it take to pull one of these off? Somewhere around 600 extras, a Ferris wheel, a drag race, a performer facing a major personal tragedy, Boyz II Men, magic pajamas, and some well-known karaoke jams. And more, of course. Way more. More. No, more.