TV Show Musicals

The Magic of Musicals on the Silver Screen

Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by naumoid/iStock / Getty Images

Taylor Lockhart
Over the years we’ve seen musical theatre done in just about every format most notably on the stage but also quite frequently crossing over from broadway into hollywood territories. Whether it takes 30 or so years, *cough* *cough* Les Mis, if your musical is popular enough, it’s bound to be made into a movie at some point, but I personally feel that the silver screen musicals are much more entertaining. The majority of these tv musicals serve to parody or play off of typical broadway musicals. Many paying homages and references to popular musicals. Today, I plan to take a look at the many musical episodes of tv shows we’ve gotten over the years and see just what makes the musical episode so fun and popular for long running tv shows. Now a few things before we start: this in no way is a ranked list of episodes. If one of your favorites is not here it may simply be because I had no interest in watching it or I felt like it tied in too heavily to the season plot that I don’t not have time to watch to fully understand. Secondly, in order to be on this list the episode must be done in a musical style format, this means more than one songs and in places characters would not generally sing them and in ways characters would not generally sing them. Shows that feature characters putting on a musical though are fair game. Anyways with that all said, pop some popcorn, sit down on your couch, and lets watch some good old fashioned telly-vision.

Fan Fiction: Supernatural
First up on our list is the season 10 episode of Supernatural, “Fan Fiction”. The episode is about an all girls school that puts on a student written production of the book within the tv show Supernatural while changing a few slight things however a goddess manifests one of the monsters from the story into reality and plans to eventually eat the author. The episode is genius and although it’s pure fan service, it comes off as an excellent addition to the series. The acknowledgement of the Dean and Cas ship is amazing and the “subtext” is incredible as Dean and Sam try to solve the mystery while having to deal with a heavily modified version of their life. However, my favorite part is the hilariously accurate depiction of a high school drama department, granted it’s still somewhat exaggerated but compared to things like high school musical it’s a serious step in the right direction. My favorite thing is at one point Dean picks up a toy gun used in the show and the director immediately scolds him and has him put it down. Overall it was a fun episode that unlike many of this list poked at high school theatre more than it did general broadway. It also had a few references without jamming then down your throat like Sam mentioning he was apart of Oklahoma as a kid. If you are or were a theatre kid at some point and love supernatural I would totally recommend this episode.

“Psych The Musical”
When the team behind hit show Psych, famous for creating a fun mystery filled cop show playing off of serious shows like blue bloods and brooklyn nine nine about a psychic who solves mysteries and murders and get into all kinds of shenanigans in Santa Barbara decided to write a musical episode to end their seventh season, they did not hold back. With many witty and memorable songs such as “Santa Barbara Skies” and “Making Up a Song”, it’s a funny, thrilling, and sometimes even touching, two episode special. The episode sees Gus and Shawn and the Santa Barbara Police Department trying to track down a mental asylum escapee who had previously written a musical based on the Jack the Ripper story. After a critic was going to ruin the show before it even began he burned the theatre to the ground with the critic inside. However as is common with mysteries things are not all they seem and they have to follow the strange clues of another mental asylum patient who Shawn previously had met which she only gives the gang when they perform songs to her in order to stop any more murders from happening and find out just what actually happened the night of the fire. The songs are honestly pretty good, and unlike many other musical episodes despite being set around a show and a theatre, it is still a complete genuine musical and not just a show the characters perform within the episodes. It has a ton of cool, twists, and turns and all the fun and wit of a regular psych episode just this time featuring song and dance. Its led many to clamor for a staged version of the episode and while I don’t think we’ll see Psych the Musical on broadway anytime too I can definitely say I would see and the enjoy the hell out of it.

“Phineas and Ferb: Rollercoaster The Musical”
Most every generation today has a cartoon they watched as a child, for me that cartoon is most notably Phineas and Ferb. I swore I watched the first episode but knowing that the show first aired in 2007 would've made me 5 years old at the time, jesus christ. So maybe I started watching a year or so later, anyways 4 years later they recreated their pilot episode in which the boys with 104 days of summer and school coming along just to end it, the annual problem of their generation being finding a good way to spend it decide to build a rollercoaster spanning the entire tri-state area, outlandish I know, but I can’t imagine the show any other way. In the first few minutes of the episodes they reference Phantom, Cats, Les Mis, and even Oklahoma. Strange they didn’t reference any Disney musicals, but I think that’s just me wanting to see some animated newsies. The musical is pretty great because it features a good amount of songs for a 25 minute run time in a show that is known well for writing a new song for every episode and some of which are actually pretty dang catchy. The theme song, “Ain’t Got Rhythm”, and “There’s a Platypus Controlling Me” are all songs I would still put on a playlist. For me, I’m not a huge fan of many of the episodes songs but it’s still got few catchy ones most notably the opening song and the finale and all the fun of a Phineas and Ferb episode. Oh, and Kenny Ortega makes an animated appearance. It really does make me wish the creators, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and Dan Povenmire really would write a children's musical. I doubt we’ll see them very far away from animation though anytime soon.

The Devil’s Hand Are Idle Playthings: Futurama
I originally was not going to put this one in here since it takes about over halfway into the episode for the music to start but I wanted the entire thing and really did enjoy it. What was originally supposed to be Futurama's finale.  This episode sees Fry trying to learn to play a holophone, a musical instrument similar to a flute or clarinet that projects the players mind on stage creating holographic visuals in tune to music. It’s actually really really cool, anyways after learning Leela loves music fry tries to learn the instrument and ends up making a deal with the devil when he realizes it is physically impossible for his hands to play the thing and also he doesn’t want to practice. The devil attempts to trick fry but fails and ends up losing his own hands to Fry. In the end, Fry becomes extremely successful and ends up being commissioned to write an opera. It goes incredibly well until Leela having gone deaf from an air horn blast caused by bender and the devil robot asks for Leela’s hand in exchange for allowing her to hear the concert. Later, the devil robot reveals Leela has actually signed off her hand in marriage instead of her physical hands and fry has to give the devil his hands back leading to the opera failing and everyone leaving the theatre. In the end fry sits alone onstage as Leela touched by how hard Fry has tried tells him to keep playing despite his talents. He continues to play an out of tune and horribly illustrated holograph of the two kissing and walking away into the sunset. The musical episode is really only musical in the fact that the second half of the episode takes place during the opera which of course is set to music. Even if operatic sounds isn’t really my style I still loved the plot and for an adult comedy show was really pretty touched by the finale.

The Nightman Cometh: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Charlies written a musical and he wants to put it on, what could possibly go wrong? Well in a bar in downtown Philly everything. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is well known for its controversial and often hilarious satire and the season 4 finale is no different. I won’t say much partly because it is so easily seen as offensive and also partly because it’s an absolutely golden episode you have got to see for yourself. However the thing that puts it apart from every other episode on this list and every other episode in tv history and keeps it even after 13 seasons one of Sunnys most popular episodes is that although parts of it aired in the second half of the episode on TV, an entire full length musical was written and performed across america as well as for one day on broadway. Technically making “The Nightman Cometh” a broadway musical. Again, without getting into controversial topics, the episode is hilarious and features some of the most quotable and memorable lines in the series. If you want to dig deeper there’s also substance for a theory that the musical is based around charlies terrible and broken past and his search for happiness that the lunatics around him seem to ruin. The play The Iceman Cometh which the musicals title references although not relating at all to the musical, does draw similarities in underlying themes to Its Always Sunny and just continues to prove that the It’s Always Sunny writers who before the show had no experience writing whatsoever continue to weave subplots into their nonsensical and insane main stories.

The musical episode today is seriously starting to gain traction with recently Riverdale setting an episode around a performance of Carrie and I absolutely welcome it, I believe every long running show should at one point attempt to do an episode set to song and dance and wild circumstances. I mean could you imagine a musical version of Law and- actually maybe that should stay a serious non musical show, but I have no doubt we’ll see the silver screen make reference and homages to the stage much more in the future. So tell me what your favorite show and how would you like to see a musical episode of it done and if you haven’t already seen any of these episodes I would highly encourage you to check them out when you have the time.

Well, that’s it for today, I personally really love stepping out of the norm of talking about broadway or a stage show into non traditional musicals forms like television musicals. I think it gives us a chance to see the outstretches of broadway and musical theatre into every genre and medium. I know I missed a lot so If any of you were planning to watch through these let me add a few more to your list. Once more with feeling: A musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Elementary School Musical”: A parody of High School Musical by South Park, The Riverdale “Carrie” Episode, The musical episode of Community, The Flash musical episode, “SimpsoncalifraglisticexpilaiDOHcious”: The Simpsons parody of Mary Poppins and many more that have aired across the years. That's all I’ve got and I will see you folks next time when I may finally be ready for an article I’ve been doing some heavy research on. Till then take care and have a lovely september everyone.

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.