TV Show Musicals: An Exercise in Mediocrity

Darren Wildeman

There I was a few weeks ago, seeing promos for the new TV show Rise -- a show that's both a musical and about theatre. Needless to say ATB caught wind of this as well.

There was buzz of the new show, excitement building up. Then came the big night, I didn't watch. I let a few days pass, read some mostly positive reviews in ATB and still only had a passing interest. A few days later, I hesitantly put on the music from the show, hoping to like it. I wanted my impression of TV show musicals to change. Rather than changing my opinion, it got reinforced.

 Unsurprisingly the music is forced, made for radio, non-plot advancing, low quality tunes that wouldn’t get stuck in your head if you used a crowbar and superglue.

“But, Darren you haven’t watched the show, how do you know the songs don’t advance the plot?” One might say. It’s a very fair point and I do personally argue that someone needs to see something to fully judge it -- However, there are a couple of red flags.

The first red flag is that they use a song that was on the radio in the last year in “Glorious” as well as a piece from the Broadway Musical Spring Awakening. 

I understand that it’s because they’re performing the show, but it is still off-putting to me.  It is so hard to build a plot around a piece of music that already exists. This is why most jukebox musicals are so poorly regarded. Outside of Jersey Boys winning the Tony, a lot of them don’t even last a full year on Broadway such as All Shook Up which is based on the music of Elvis which opened and closed in seven months. Granted, a piece of music doesn’t necessarily have to move the show however, since Showboat, this is what the vast majority of well-regarded pieces of musical theatre have done, and is generally what makes a musical to be considered good.

 As for the songs that are original, they just aren’t memorable. It’s entirely possible that these songs do contribute to the plot of the show, but a rap about playing football? Really? The rhymes in it are so weak and it is extremely hard to take seriously. The other music, while original, sounds like a stereotypical imitation of Glee. Again, it’s nice, but doesn’t stand out. The plot of the show might be great, I’ve seen a lot of posts saying that, and if so, that’s fantastic. I think a show about theatre would be really cool. However, I’m focusing more about the musical aspect of Rise, and the other shows. For the most part, these shows either don’t need to be a musical, or need better original music. Repeatedly reusing music just comes off as lazy.

Speaking of needing original music, let’s jump into Glee. Let me start by saying I have nothing against the performers. Most of them are incredibly talented people and a lot of them had very good careers after the show ended. I’ll also give Glee some credit, they did manage to make some prewritten songs work for the plot. In terms of moving the plot I’d say they did an excellent job when choosing some of the songs they did. They work with the story, but they still don’t work as well as an original song would have. You see, when you pick already existing music, it won’t fit your narrative perfectly. It might be really close but if you write a song you can write it around exactly what’s happening instead of shoehorning a song in.

Photo by JTaI1129/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by JTaI1129/iStock / Getty Images

My next criticism is the music itself. It’s not that it's bad, but it’s that they don’t cover songs well. The vocals don’t stand out and the production value of the performances is bland. If you’re going to cover powerful and well known songs, you have to make them stand out and not make them sound like a mediocre American Idol audition. Glee had some fantastic vocalists on it, but with such amazing vocals they give some really bland performances. Songs like "Don’t Stop Believing", "I Will Always Love You", "Teenage Dream", and "If I Were a Boy" among many others Glee covered are really popular and well known. However, none of these performances really separated themselves from any other covers on the internet or the original versions of the songs. Some of these performances also come off as downright cheesy. There are scenes from Glee that are supposed to be sad and make the audience cry, but I find myself cringing or rolling my eyes at some of these scenes. Rather than having songs that are forced, or are way too well known to be covered well, there could have songs that authentically show what’s been happening, with even more power than a forced pop song.

I understand the whole point of Glee is to be covers, but at times these covers come off as lame at best. They look and feel forced, and don’t always move the plot as well as they should. Sure, some of them do work, but there is still an element of being forced and having the story written around the song rather than having the song telling the story, which is less than ideal. However, even TV shows who use original music don’t often work, an example being Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

I honestly have no idea what the music is trying to do. Some of it sounds like classic theatre, while some sounds like modern pop, while having everything in between. In the first place, it has no direction, nothing that links the songs together, and nothing that sets it apart. The songs aren’t recognizable and don’t really separate themselves. It isn’t well written and sounds mediocre at best. This isn’t even the worst part, the lyrics are uninventive and fall completely flat. The lyrics of a musical are supposed to push the musical along and make you think about the show and what’s happening. The lyrics in this show are shallow, insipid, and leave the viewer unable to think on any level. They are a classic example of telling and not showing, there just isn’t any depth at all to these songs and the music seems so unnecessary.

 If you’re going to make something a musical, having music for the sake of it is not the direction to go in. Have the music do something, and add to the story. Don’t just let it be a quirky song. The lyrics of every song should tell you exactly what’s happening while songs in a musical should go deeper than that. For example of this, look at Sondheim. He does this well- his music tells you what’s happening, but so many of his shows also have a much deeper narrative. Sondheim, Alan Menken, and many other successful writers also have a melodic theme throughout the show that keeps reappearing which also helps push the plot.  These songs sound like they were picked at random. Speaking of themes and lines I can follow

Let’s turn to Smash/Bombshell. I honestly expected to put this series on blast. However, I was pleasantly surprised by it, when I listen to the music I can tell it’s trying to tell a story. With Smash and Bombshell, you can tell that the songs have a purpose; they’re trying to point you somewhere. A lot of them are original songs written around the plot and for the plot. I understand that the other musicals had their reasons for using other songs, but you still can’t get the same story telling as if you write something original. The themes in Smash are prominent as well. This show addresses a lot of the criticisms I had of the previous shows. This show still isn’t bulletproof from criticism as some of the music does sound like it’s a bit forced and generic. However, it does this better than anything else I have listened to.

Some of these shows have their strong points, but for the most part TV show musicals just crumble under any sort of analysis. The TV format isn’t meant to handle music. An average stage or movie musical runs two to two and a half hours. A TV show is generally one hour with commercials. The music in a show adds takes up some of that valuable time. I think this is where things can get thrown off. Even if you only have to build around one four or five minute song that’s still five minutes where you have to figure out how the plot is going to move. It can disrupt the entire show. This article looked at four major TV series and only one of them managed to kind of work, which is not a good percentage. If you want music with your story, you’re better off going to the local theatre or turning on a musical movie.