On Sunday, as people around the country were enjoying FOX’s live version of Grease, all eyes ‘round these parts turned to the prospect of a different kind of musical. A deep, very serious conversation began to take place between actors Anna Kendrick and Jordan Peele on how best to bring Dirty Dancing to the small screen with Kendrick and Channing Tatum starring. It’s a silly idea, one that will almost certainly never find its way into reality, but that hasn’t stopped us from setting our DVR to record any combination of the words ‘dirty’ and ‘dancing’ that might appear in the program description for the foreseeable future. The early results are, shall we say, not quite what we had in mind.
Flush, then, with the prospect of more fancasting of musical adaptations, Neil tasked me with putting together my list of Broadway musicals I’d like to see given the live treatment. He couldn’t have known at the time that I spent five years in high school and college trying to be a singer, or that by giving me this assignment he was, in essence, enabling a recovering junky and “forcing” me to listen to hours on end of my favorite Broadway shows. Still, somewhere in the midst of my musical theater-induced fog, I awoke with a list of the five shows I would actually schedule an evening around to watch on live television. These may not be the most family-friendly selections of all time, but if a cable channel ever found a way to give these the Showtime/Reefer Madness treatment, I would be in their debt forever.
In 1975, writer and editor E.L. Doctorow released Ragtime, his fourth and most enduring novel. The book wove together historical events with elements of fiction, portraying the first decade of the 20th Century as a time of violent tension between naturalized Americans and both the black and immigrant communities. At the heart of the novel is Colehouse Walker, a former ragtime pianist-turned-revolutionary who leads a rebellion against those in power when a great injustice befalls his family. By challenging historical narratives through the lens of the civil rights movement, Ragtime was an enormous success; the New York Times review upon its release described it as working “so effortlessly that one hesitates to take it apart.” In 1998, the book was given a lavish Broadway treatment, with an estimated $11 million dollars spent on the production. The show would go on to be nominated for twelve Tony nominations, including best leading actor and actress. Which would have meant great success for the show in any other year; this year, though, belonged to The Lion King musical.
It’s hard not to look at the phenomenal success of a show like Hamilton and see an opening for adult musicals; even NBC cannot keep up a steady diet of shows like Peter Pan and The Wiz without eventually succumbing to their own gimmickry. In fact, Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda is himself a big fan of Ragtime. Search through videos of his ensemble’s relaxed outdoor performances and you’ll see a few impromptu musical numbers from the show. And if NBC boss Robert Greenblatt is correct in assuming that the producers of Hamilton hope to protect the theatrical experience of their show for a few more years, then Ragtime might be the perfect stand-in. Hell, while we’re wishing, why not bring back a few of the original cast members? Two of the stars from the original Broadway run are no strangers to television. Audra McDonald – ahem, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald – finished a seven-year run on Private Practice in 2013, while actor Brian Stokes Mitchell might be recognizable to non-Broadway fans due to his recurring role in Mr. Robot. Beautiful, bold, and biting, Ragtime would be the sort of show that even skeptics would tune in to watch.
Kiss Me, Kate
With countless musicals from the 1930s and 1940s to choose from, it’s only a matter of time before a television network lands on one of the Big Three of classical gangster musicals from the decade. No disrespect to Anything Goes or Guys and Dolls, but I’m putting my money on a small screen adaptation of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. The story of a bitterly separated couple who are forced to share a stage for a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, the show blends the dark, dysfunctional humor of every modern television comedy with the timeless nature of a Shakespearean farce. It’s a show that has been revived countless time – and even given the 3D treatment in the 1950s – proving that its humor and energy is pretty much timeless.
And if we may be so bold – and we may, and we must – there are two actors who would be perfect for any television revival of the show. The first, unsurprisingly, would be Kristen Bell in the role of Lilli Vanessi. Bell is no stranger to both musical theater and television; musical theater geeks can already speak to her wonderful turn as Mary Lane in the 2005 Showtime adaptation of Reefer Madness, while mainstream audiences might know her from some animated movie about snow that made a couple of bucks. Less intuitive – but no less fun – would be Michael Shannon as one of the two gangsters who blackmail their way into the show. Shannon is no slouch as a singer, but with his penchant for popping up in weird comedic places and his wonderful turn in The Night Before, the world would be a better place with a scowling Shannon hoofing it to an upbeat version of “Brush up Your Shakespeare.” If James Whitmore could do it, anyone can.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: unless a network like FX or AMC decides to get into the live musical theater game, this show will never happen on broadcast television. And that’ll be a crying shame. With an eye towards undermining the American dream and delivering a scathing indictment against gun culture, Stephen Sondheim’s musical remains just as relevant – and just as overlooked – as the day it was first released. Assassins brings together each of the men and women who tried successfully or otherwise to murder a President of the United States. In an attempt to convince Lee Harvey Oswald that he needs to shoot John F. Kennedy, each assassin tells their version of the story. They did it as a testament of patriotism; they did it as a shortcut to social status; they did it as a show of faith in God. As the show plays out, what results is Dickens in reverse, the ghosts of Christmas past come calling to ensure that the world becomes a much, much worse place going forward.
While Assassins might be the toughest show on this list to get on the air, it’s also one of the more simple shows, with each of the productions built around a black box production style that gives an adventurous production designer plenty of creative room to work with. And who to star in this progressive piece of song and dance? Given that Assassins is primarily a folk musical, it would probably be worth calling someone like Oscar Isaac to see if he might be interested in taking on a lead role; all actors who can sing find their way to musical theater eventually, and we’ve decided for the sake of this exercise that Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t count. With Show Me a Hero under his belt, Isaac has also shown he’s willing to move to television for the right role. Hearing Isaac sing “Ballad of Booth,” the showstopper where John Wilkes Booth frantically writes down his life story before being shot to death in a barn, would immediately age the medium of live televised musical theater about forty years.
Little Shop of Horrors
This one is such a no-brainer that it’s kind of hard to believe it isn’t already in production. Not only does Little Shop of Horrors feature one of the most beloved movie adaptations of all time – ensuring that millions of people who have never set foot into a theater are still familiar with Seymour Krelborn and his strange and interesting plant – it was also recently brought back to New York for a short run featuring Audrey Greene and little-known Broadway actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Ellen Greene is, of course, a star; in the performance that I attended, each of her songs was rewarded with a thunderous applause that ground the show to a halt. Still, even with that to compete against, it was Gyllenhaal’s shyly sweet Seymour that served as the night’s big surprise. Who knew that he could sing that well? Or that he had any interest in doing musical theater? If he ever gets tired of making demented independent cinema or powerful stage theaters, the door is open for him to sing his little heart out at a moment’s notice.
What would make Little Shop of Horrors an even better selection for live television are the built-in roles for pop stars looking to make their mark on Broadway. The three street urchins in the production double as both the show’s narrators and the beating doo-wop heart at the center of it all; this opens the door for any up-and-coming R&B stars to take part in the musical without too much acting pressure. And with Little Shop of Horrors rooted solidly in American consciousness, you are under no obligations whatsoever to pretend like characters need to adhere to previous versions of either race or gender. I’d love to see someone like Janelle Monáe – who, by the way, has a background in musical theater – take a turn as the man-eating plant Audrey II in a television adaptation of the show. Sure, it would probably piss off the usual puppets-are-boys crowd, but how amazing would that be? No, really, how amazing?
Phantom of the Paradise/The Apple
With Fox hard at work on its adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there currently exists a void of midnight musicals capable of making the jump to the small screen. Why not skip stage productions entirely and adapt a musical that only exists as a movie? Brian DePalma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise is a contemporary take on the Phantom of the Opera story, with evil musical producer Swan stealing the music of sad-sack composer Winslow Leach. When an accident leads to Leach’s disfigurement, he begins to haunt Swan’s night club in hope of seeking his revenge. Similarly, Menahem Golan’s 1980 disco opera The Apple focuses on a satanic record producer and the talented female singer he tries to corrupt. Both films offer a dystopian future run by evil musical corporations; both are also rising in popularity as midnight movies among those who deem The Rocky Horror Picture Show too mainstream for the cult crowd.
As television networks continue to push live events as a way to recreate appointment television, even the smaller networks will find themselves wanting to get in on the act. This frees up cult hits like Phantom of the Opera and The Apple for the smaller channels that want to appeal to their core audiences without, you know, spending a lot of money on expensive live rights. It’s not that hard to imagine some channel taking it upon themselves to remake popular ’70s and ’80s movie musicals (Xanadu, anyone?) and running off a string of nostalgic shows for the VHS crowd. After all, musical adaptations of cult movies have a long and storied tradition: if The Toxic Avenger can find its way to (off off off off) Broadway, then certainly we can give Phantom of the Paradise or The Apple the small screen treatment.