This week sees the return of a tradition that, frankly, we hadn't realized we'd missed until we heard there was a new one coming: the live TV musical. Often (but not always) arriving in time for the holiday season, the live TV musical has been a source of both delight and chaos on the network TV calendar since NBC revived the concept in 2013.
Since that first production of The Sound of Music, there have been ten proper live musicals on network TV. There have been plenty more that were faux-live musicals — including pre-taped productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on FOX and the Grinch's pandemic spectacular just last year on NBC — and for that matter a number of promised productions that never came to pass (never forget Hair Live!, or the Jennifer Lopez version of Bye Bye Birdie that was not to be).
But this Wednesday NBC returns with Annie Live!, starring Taraji P. Henson as Miss Hannigan and Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, plus Tituss Burgess, Nicole Scherzinger, and Megan Hilty filling in for a COVID-struck Jane Krakowski. How will the little orphan's hard-knock production stack up against the live TV musicals that came before it? Ranked from worst to first, here's a look at each of the ten live TV musicals of the modern era:
At the bottom of our list is NBC's horrendous staging of Peter Pan. This production had some history behind it, as it was a nod to NBC's 1955 live production of Peter Pan, starring the iconic Mary Martin. Like its predecessor, the 2014 production cast a grown woman to play Peter Pan — Girls star Allison Williams, but she was no Mary Martin. Opposite Williams was Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, whose unhinged presence and bizarre line readings were what you'd expect (and even what we were looking forward to), but only served to accentuate the awkwardness of the live production. Broadway standouts like Kelli O'Hara, Christian Borle, and Taylor Louderman lent the production some much-needed pixie dust, street cred, but it wasn't enough to make Peter Pan Live! truly soar.
Asterisks abound for this ABC live musical, which was technically live and technically a musical but was more than anything else a fully costumed concert performance in front of a projection of the 1989 film The Little Mermaid on the Disney lot. The casting was pretty wonderful, though, with Moana's Auli?i Cravalho stepping into the role of Ariel, Queen Latifah as Ursula, Shaggy as Sebastian the crab, and John Stamos as the maniac French chef singing "Le Poisson." Still, the whole thing came off like a half-measure that wasn't confident enough to attempt an actual live musical, and for long stretches we were just… watching the movie.
Perhaps you've forgotten FOX's Tyler Perry production of The Passion — i.e. the story of the persecution, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ — staged live in New Orleans and broadcast on Palm Sunday in 2016. Perry provided the narration, there were contemporary songs added to soundtrack the events of Jesus's final hours, and performances by the likes of Trisha Yearwood (as Mary), American Idol alum Chris Daughtry (as Judas Iscariot), and Seal (as Pontius Pilate). The show's bombastic-but-devout tone was an odd match for a format that's come to be an occasion for live-Tweeting and audience frivolity, resulting in a production that was more of a big-swing curiosity than something we actually enjoyed.
Producer Marc Platt and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — the team behind La La Land — reunited for this live TV production of Pasek and Paul's 2012 stage adaptation of the beloved Christmas classic in which young Ralphie experiences the joys and agonies of a childhood Christmas, all the while pining for a Red Ryder air rifle. The production was staged on the Warner Bros. backlot, as was Grease Live! the year before, but while that production made creative use of their space, in this case the setting mostly took the air out of A Christmas Story's sails. Maya Rudolph did good work as Ralphie's mom, and both Jane Krakowski and Silicon Valley's Chris Diamantopoulos were impressive, but with largely unremarkable songs and a drab atmosphere, this one was disappointingly average. The production did memorably feature a show-stopping live commercial for the then-upcoming film The Last Showman, featuring Hugh Jackman, Zendaya and Zac Efron.
The 2019 live staging of Jonathan Larson's generation-defining musical probably would have killed for an average production. Instead, what they got was a snake-bitten endeavor that suffered through technical difficulty (a busted cable meant viewers in New York City missed the show's first five minutes) and most notoriously, its lead performer (Brennin Hunt, who played Roger) broke his foot in rehearsal the day before the live show. The resulting production had to be a mix of pre-recorded performance from the dress rehearsal and very limited actual live performance, with the viewing experience taking on the air of a "we're all in this together" partnership. Graded on the curve of catastrophe, Rent turned out pretty okay, with a cast full of exciting and talented young people (Brandon Victor Dixon, Kiersey Clemons, Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher) and a finale that reunited the show's original cast for "Seasons of Love."
The show that revived the live TV musical, NBC's decision to stage a live version of The Sound of Music deserves credit for taking a chance with an increasingly fickle TV audience. And while quibbles abound about the actual production — including Carrie Underwood's black hole of charisma in the lead role of Maria — you have to give the show credit for understanding the appeal, in the Twitter age, of providing viewers with a show they can watch live... even if they're making fun of it. Also the value of casting Audra McDonald to sing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and blow the roof off of the place.
FOX's first live TV musical came in 2016 with this live production of the classic musical-turned-movie Grease, starring Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, and Vanessa Hudgens. Where NBC's musicals had struggled with how to accommodate the static nature of the stage and the question of what to do with the audience. Grease Live solved both with a staging on the Warner Bros. lot that kept cameras and sets moving and put pockets of audience throughout. Not only did it enhance the production, but the moving parts made the live TV aspect of it all that much more thrilling.
NBC sure seemed like it was tempting fate when it announced plans to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera to the masses in a live Easter Sunday broadcsat, but the network's production of JCS was incredibly impressive. The show itself — a spectacle of a spectacle — ended up lending itself quite well to a live production, but the performances really carried this one, including a barn-burner of a turn by Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot. This was the show that put the "E" in John Legend's EGOT, Sara Bareilles completely brought it as Mary Magdalene, and '70s rocker Alice Cooper was fun stunt casting as King Herod.
Few Broadway shows provide more pure fun than Hairspray, which made the adaptation of John Waters's movie the perfect choice for NBC's fourth live musical of this era. While most of these live musicals have enjoyed outside-the-box stunt casting in major roles, this production cast the Tony Award-winning star of the original Broadway production, Harvey Fierstein, in the role of Edna Turnblad. The rest of the cast worked hard to live up to Harvey's standard, including Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle, Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad, Kristin Chenoweth as Velma von Tussle, Sean Hayes as Mr. Pinky, and Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton. Young Maddie Baillio did an admirable job in the role of Tracy Turnblad, and she was joined on the live show by previous Tracys Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur.
To date, no other live TV musical has delivered the energy, joy, and exuberance of NBC's production of The Wiz in 2015. After The Sound of Music and Peter Pan established the live musical as the rubbernecking event of the season, The Wiz delivered something more: excellence. And it did so with a show that's often failed to get its due. The Black re-telling of The Wizard of Oz was a perfect opportunity for NBC to show viewers something different, and with cast members like Amber Reilly, Uzo Aduba, Elijah Kelly, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige, and Queen Latifah all delivering at peak level, that's exactly what audiences got. Newcomer Shanice Williams was a true discovery in the Dorothy role, starring opposite Stephanie Mills — the original Dorothy from the Broadway production — in a moment that crossed generational lines. With The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, the audience often had to work to pick out the moments of transcendence; The Wiz was nearly all transcendence, an uplifting experience that all live network musicals since continue to chase.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.