Grease Live: the TV musical revival comes to Australian prime time

In late 2013, US network NBC started a new annual tradition: a live musical broadcast performed in studios and sent out on the airwaves to millions of Americans. They kicked things off with The Sound of Music, which attracted an astonishing 18.6 million live viewers and while no live musical has quite matched those figures, they’ve been solid ratings successes for NBC each year they’ve been performed.

NBC has broadcast two more musicals since then — the decidedly underwhelming Peter Pan and a glorious version of The Wiz — and will take on Hairspray next Christmas. UK network ITV put their own spin on the format with their take on The Sound of Music, and now Fox is getting into the game with an upcoming live broadcast of The Rocky Horror Show (featuring Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox as Frank N Furter) and yesterday’s Grease Live, which airs on Channel Nine tonight.

The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz were all aired on Foxtel locally, but Grease Live is the first of these musicals to receive a prime time slot on an Australia free-to-air network. It was watched by over 12 million viewers in the US, but it’s unlikely it will make a massive impact here given how little local promotion there’s been.

While it won’t be “live” by the time Australian audiences see it, it’s still worth tuning in for.

It’s certainly the most technically ambitious of all the live musicals that have aired in recent years, taking place over several sound-stages and a studio backlot with live studio audiences.

Grease has a pretty thin script to begin with, so this never becomes truly great television. But in terms of pure spectacle, it’s a massive success. You should make sure you catch the first four minutes, which see pop singer Jessie J performing the title song as she walks through the backlot and dressing rooms encountering the entire cast along the way. It’s a fairly epic moment of overblown, camp TV with a genuine diva lighting up the screen.

The TV version is a fusion of the original stage musical and the film which was based upon it, and the design takes many, many cues from the film, right down to Danny’s pink shirt during the dance scene.

Directed by Thomas Kail, who directed Broadway’s Hamilton and In The Heights, it never quite shakes off the fact that it’s based largely on a movie which is known by much of the audience back-to-front — it needs to surprise in moments and give a kick of nostalgia in others, and it doesn’t always get that balance perfect.

But there are quite a few smart cameos in there — Didi Conn, who played Frenchy in the Grease film appears in a scene with the new Frenchy, Carley Rae Jepsen, and Eve Plumb, the original Jan Brady, has a memorable appearance.

I think there are a few reasons why these broadcasts have appealed so much. Firstly, the energy and adrenaline that comes from a few hours of live performance can’t be matched by much that’s been pre-recorded.

Movie musicals have almost always used pre-recorded vocals, which place some kind of barrier between the audience and the actors. But nowadays the technology available to directors, editors and audio engineers allows them to iron out even the slightest kinks in musical numbers and create something that’s completely flattened out by its own perfection.

While these live broadcasts are rehearsed and stage-managed to within an inch of their lives, there’s no danger that they’ll ever feel too safe.

Obviously, the potential for error in any of these broadcasts is massive — something will inevitably go wrong. In the UK Sound of Music Live the young girl playing Marta fell over right in front of one of the cameras. In Grease, the audio cut out for a good ten seconds during the climactic Hand Jive sequence.

Nothing has gone majorly wrong in any of the recent live musicals, but Grease had one shock event the day before the broadcast: Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Rizzo, lost her father after a long battle with cancer. There are obviously understudies prepared to step into these roles, but the young actor decided to go ahead with the performance and dedicate it to her father.

Hudgens, who is best known as playing the sweet-as-pie Gabriella from Disney’s High School Musical, turned in a tough and excellent performance, and knowing the full context of that performance makes her rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do a very moving and triumphant moment.

For networks, the appeal is clear: the future of broadcast TV will almost certainly lie in live events rather than pre-recorded programs. In the age of streaming and on-demand services, the unique selling point of broadcast is that there’s a community of viewers watching an event as it unfolds — even if they’re sending out snarky tweets the whole way through. With the exception of reality talent shows, awards ceremonies and sporting events, the potential of live broadcasts hasn’t been fully exploited.

I’m not sure if Australian networks will ever be able to justify producing a similar live musical event on such a scale, but musicals could easily be staged slightly more modestly and still be just as charming.

I imagine local execs are keeping a close eye on what works and what doesn’t in this format. If they’re looking for homegrown “event TV”, this would seem to be a clear template to follow.

Grease Live airs on Nine at 8.30pm, Tuesday February 2

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