Anticipating Fall 2014: Galavant and the Survival of Musicals on TV

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I don’t know how I missed this when upfronts initially came out, but I finally turned onto ABC’s next ambitious move for a new television show this fall, thanks to the release of the extended trailer this past weekend. With the recent success of Frozen and rumors galore of churning out more Disney movies-into-musicals on Broadway, it’s no wonder ABC / Disney is feeling pretty confident that its fairy tale musical model is on the rise again. However, after watching the extended trailer – and it’s pretty damn detailed – I am only left to wonder: will the musical format survive on the small screen?

It’s definitely something to think about with the end of Glee coming, and not too long ago Smash crashed and burned after only 2 seasons. America certainly loves seeing song and dance on television – music performance and competition shows have been a staple of television history. However, containing a musical package within a dramatic script is a different feat, and not many other shows written for adults have attempted this in as full-blown a format as Galavant will. Sure, many shows include a musical interlude every now and again – a number of well loved long-running comedies seem to have a “musical” episode. But can a weekly Disney musical sustain a broad audience week after week after week?

What I believe has made Glee work is the integration of your favorite songs into the story. Essentially, Glee is a jukebox musical. Everyone loves a good cover of a song, and Glee has been pretty good about pulling songs that are feel-good across all genres. Glee also centers around the premise of performance. These people aren’t totally singing out of the blue – we know from the get-go these characters are talented performers, and they’re constantly in rehearsal or on stage for something. When they transition into song outside of this realm, then, it’s not that hard to imagine because we established that the kids – and adults – are musically minded. It’s an easier jump into musical interpretation than most other situations often found in musicals. Lastly, it’s also probably largely appealing to not only base the show on constant performance, but to set it in modern day high school. This is an environment that’s readily approachable to a broad American audience.

So what made Smash, which included all original songs, ultimately fail? Is it the thought of being thrown into a musical number of which we’re largely unfamiliar? Is the show-within-the-show just not as easily translatable to the greater American audience? Now, I fell in love with the first season. The premise of the show was perfectly set up to fill up a complete television season: a famous Broadway production team spends the season writing and developing a new musical, with hopes to make it a smash hit on Broadway. Its appeal was a window into the process of what steps are taken to actually pitch and produce a show, what sacrifices are made for the unknowns, and the struggle of those who are trying to get more of a taste of the limelight. We follow from the whim of writing about Marilyn Monroe all the way up to the Boston previews. Amazing set-up. Season 2? Beyond the behind-the-screens chaos, the focus also became a bit chaotic. We’re not only watching this prolonged process of going from off-Broadway to on, we’re also watching another fledgling musical develop in tandem, and that fledgling musical is the sort-of, kind-of new conflict. The two shows are pinned against each other. Oh, and they use more cover songs as well. Again, all predicated on the idea of performance. But why didn’t it hold? Is the model of the show unsustainable? (I mean, how many show within a show things can we go into without it getting too tired?) Is the premise also just not as approachable or appealing if you’re not in the audience bracket who’s really into musical theater? Something about this formula didn’t work, and this should be a warning for Galavant.

Not only is Galavant going to be an Alan Menken style musical week by week, it’s also a period piece. Now, ABC has met success with themed fairy tale / period type shows – Once Upon a Time has been met with success, enough so to spawn a spinoff. But I worry about the premise of Galavant holding the test of time, or even being viable beyond a single season. The extended trailer sets up well the idea that when we meet the titular Galavant, he’s down on his luck. So basically he’s going to try to reclaim his glory and win a new girl, or whatever. After that, then what? Chasing the original girl and original glory can’t be stretched too far beyond a single season – audiences will inevitably become tired and impatient. Also, the style of the music is going to be very similar across the board. What has made Glee and Smash exciting in their heyday was the different musical flavors we get each week. Yeah, there’s a very definitive voice and style for the music in Smash but they played with musical styles to tell the story of Marilyn, and especially in season 2, we had the modern rock musical pegged against the more classically composed show. If you think back on the classic Alan Menken musicals, there’s a lot of similar, sugary tones in each of the songs. Everything is painted so sweetly, even the “goofier” songs by the token comedic relief. Will Galavant feature more variety of style? Lastly, unlike Glee and Smash and many other shows that throw in a musical interlude here and there, we’re expected to buy into these characters as performers. We don’t have the readily placed set up that other shows have, like HEY, these people are talented singers and they like to perform; or HEY, this person is about to daydream/hallucination, and this daydream/hallucination will take shape as a musical performance. For a broader audience, it is essential that the show sells us not only on this fairy tale universe, but that it’s normal and acceptable for these characters to break into song and dance every now and again. As someone who’s listened to on and off again grumblings of those who maybe don’t “get” musicals, this is not the easiest trope to contend with. Is this, then, relatable?

The thing Galavant has on its side that, despite being a comedic musical fairy tale a la Disney, it isn’t just a kids’ movie playing at night. As evidenced in the extended trailer, we automatically know Galavant had a very passionate romance, and the lyrics in the song are a little more cheeky. The twist on the fairy tale gives the show an almost Into the Woods edge, trumping our usual expectations of the genre and allowing itself to be openly vulgar and honest. Spinning the show as the tale of a fallen hero rising back up is a refresher of the genre.

Bear in mind, all this skepticism comes from, again, someone who is a lover of musicals. I’ve been wanting something of the traditional musical format to survive on television, but there have been few examples far and between. I don’t know if this fall Galavant will provide the answer, but hopefully we’ll be treated to some fun, some great songs, and some great writing.

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