It’s Not All Glee For Musical Dramas

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

The Indian film industry is full of them. They were once a staple of Hollywood. Now television is trying to embrace the musical drama. With the phenomenal success of Fox’s Glee, and the imminent arrival of the Spielberg-NBC drama, Smash, TV networks are making a concerted effort to succeed with a genre that has traditionally been a ratings challenge.

Now when I refer to musical dramas, I mean solely scripted series where the characters break out into song, either naturally (e.g. a character sings on stage), or unnaturally (e.g. a character sings in a police precinct). What I’m not referring to are the spate of reality competition series, where music clearly is one of the most popular sub-genres. This piece isn’t about X-FactorThe Voice or Idol, it is purely about dramas and comedy-dramas that are musicals.

In the past year, I have been asked on a few occasions by US network and production company execs whether there are any decent international musical dramas for them to snap up the format rights to. This led me to think that there is clearly a growing demand among the creative community to develop hit musicals. However, there are very few examples of successful musical dramas, either in the US or internationally.

Over the last 20 or so years, Before Glee, (or as ‘Gleeks’ would call it, B.G.), there had been several attempts in the US to launch successful musicals. There was Stephen Bochco’s infamous Cop Rock, CBS’s Viva Laughlin (based on the UK musical drama Viva Blackpool), to name but two. Both were ratings disasters.Viva Laughlin was in fact canceled after just two episodes. Even the UK original, Blackpool, which aired on BBC1, had very ordinary audience figures, falling between four and five million viewers – well below the timeslot average for that channel. So why is it that musicals generally struggle on TV?

Television certainly requires a greater sense of realism than cinema. You don’t find the same levels of fantasy, adventure and other pure escapist fare on mainstream TV – most of the highly successful series are grounded in reality. One could argue that the reason the first season of Heroes compared better than subsequent seasons was that it stayed in a world that viewers recognized, whereas later seasons became more typical fantasy, which alienated non-fantasy viewers of that series.

When characters start singing, viewers instantly recognize this as a world that isn’t the one they inhabit. This lowers their suspension of disbelief, a key requirement for any drama to sustain itself – especially over multiple weeks and years. New original songs written for the series also reduce the level of familiarity, as do old Broadway numbers, because they aren’t songs most viewers instantly recognize. And then there’s creating a story archetype that satisfies the target demo’s preferences. A show about cops isn’t necessarily appealing to the core tastes of audiences that like musicals.

What Glee does so well is literally overcome all these problems. It uses modern songs that viewers do not feel are dated. (Some of them are in fact exceptionally current). They take a universal situation – the struggles of sexuality and popularity in high school – and ground it in a reality that is the glee club, something that actually exists in American high schools. The problems that the main ensemble of characters face are issues that are easily identifiable, especially to the types of viewers that are potentially attracted to musicals.

These may seem obvious elements to have in any musical drama, but you’ll be surprised how many have (and will) fall short.

We know from the reality competition shows that viewers love to see people sing, but in a drama they need the right context to care about these characters (as none are likely to be competing for a record contract!). If you dig into the library of musical dramas, you’ll notice the odd series that addresses this, e.g. Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on your Collar, which at its heart was about a bored foreign officer worker (played by Ewan McGregor) desperately wanting some fun and excitement to his life as the Brits had handed over global affairs to the Americans, and he had nothing to do at work. This was, however, still niche. Glee has turned the genre into a huge mainstream affair.

For US network execs, the goal it appears has been to find another gem in this arena. However, they will need to be aware of the pitfalls that this genre poses for mainstream audiences – as not all musicals have the characteristics of Glee.

Lipstick on your Collar is profiled in TheirTV, currently in beta phase, our free resource and blog covering trends in international content.

 

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