Musicals, like concerts, work best on the stage, live, where you can feel the emotional energy of the singing. There’s nothing between you and the singer except maybe a wisp or two of blue hair.
To a lesser extent, musicals work on the big screen, as simple, self-contained stories with expressionistic flourishes. They can still deliver falling rain to sing in, and real hills that come alive.
But then, in descending order of success, musicals work in Saturday morning cartoons about pop groups; when you’re scream-singing songs in the shower from “Hair” or “Hairspray”; and, finally, least of all, on prime-time series television.
TV history is littered with blown attempts at musical drama and comedy. The most famous flop is Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock,” the “Ishtar” of the small screen, and there are a number of lesser-known botches such as “Rags to Riches” and “Viva Laughlin.” It’s a hard combination to get right, blending the immediacy of singing with the coolness of the medium, with the intimacy of cameras, and with the nearly impossible requirement of coming up with songs for some 22 episodes a year. In a special episode of a series, the musical approach can offer a surrealistic kick, as “Scrubs” and “Buffy the Vampires Slayer” proved; and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” certainly was a great exception. But TV musicals generally don’t fly over the long run.
So it is particularly unusual that prime-time TV is currently home to four musical series: NBC’s “Smash,” which returns on Tuesday, Fox’s “Glee,” ABC’s “Nashville,” and HBO’s “Treme.” Theater and television are suddenly all buddy-buddy, after years of strain. The ratings for all of these musical series have ranged from mediocre to OK, but their respective networks seem to be finding enough value, demographically, to keep them around. “Glee,” in particular, has been a boon for Fox, as it has generated Emmys and the kind of rabid youth-market buzz that creates young stars (Lea Michele, Chris Colfer), and older ones, too (Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison). As it makes bonus bucks on cover versions of classic songs, it’s a scripted extension of “American Idol” and the Fox brand.
But creatively, these shows are a very mixed bag. What they all do right: They ground their story lines in the world of music. While the likes of “Cop Rock” and “Viva Laughlin” were set in non-arts scenarios, and had to slap together ballads with police officers, the newer shows have built-in reasons to make characters burst into song. The music doesn’t come out of left field when the setting is the Broadway stage of “Smash,” or the music room of “Glee,” or the clubs and stages of Music City in “Nashville” and New Orleans in “Treme.” It’s a natural extension of the story line.
Or it ought to be. When these shows go inside of a rehearsal room, say, or a recording studio, within the logic of the plot, and then there is music, they work best. “Nashville” has been particularly successful at weaving songs into each episode, with performances by characters who span the generations of country music — from Rayna James (Connie Britton), the superstar, to Gunnar (Sam Palladio), the struggling singer-songwriter. The “Nashville” music, which is produced by T Bone Burnett, is embedded in the story line, just as it was in the Robert Altman movie “Nashville,” so that the performances often move the action forward or somehow comment on it. “Wrong Song,” the hit song within the show, is significant because it has forced nemeses Rayna and Juliette (Hayden Panettierre) together. The scenes of them writing it and singing it onstage have been a juicy study in how discord can sometimes sound pretty good.
Like “Nashville,” “Treme” is about the dreams — both creative and financial — of a city and its musicians. The show, which will return for one last five-episode season, couldn’t exist without the music, which is as fundamental as the script and the costumes. You can feel as though creator David Simon is taking you on a documentary musical tour of New Orleans, walking from club to club to house party, as his rambling cast of characters mingle on and off stage with real local musicians. “Treme” could use a little more plot emphasis; the vibrant music, magical as it is, often drowns out the advance of the action. But the song sequences never feel jarringly gratuitous or, worse, there simply to grow the profits through record sales.
Too many of the songs on “Glee” come off as just that: built for synergy. Once upon a time, the show promised to weave in music as the saving grace for a bunch of high school kids. Now, the songs are big, over-produced, self-standing sequences that alienate. The choices for which songs the “Glee” cast will cover have become a “thing,” obscuring rather than illuminating the story lines. Instead of modest expressions of character development, the songs are flashy and irrelevant.
That kind of musical glitz also marred the first season of “Smash.” Initially, the music fed into the arc of the making of “Marilyn: The Musical,” but soon enough, the song and dance segments broke off from the story line, which itself became shallow and melodramatic. The songs drifted away from the texture of the Broadway production, as Katharine McPhee’s Karen sang at a karaoke club and a bar mitzvah while Megan Hilty’s Ivy had musical hallucinations. Initially about the creative process behind “Marilyn,” and how music and book merge with actors for the final product, “Smash” lost its grounding. Like “Glee,” it became a glorified jukebox.
On the stage, musicals can thrive with basic plot outlines, one-dimensional characters, and only a loose connection between the story and the songs. In theater, the live performance is the thing. But on TV, the closeness of the cameras and the weekly pace call for more nuance and artlessness from the writers. TV’s musical shows click when the songs are organically engrained in the narrative, not merely plugged in as prime-time music videos.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew