Yesterday, I talked about how hard it is to get a decent live music performance on TV. Today, we're going further down the rabbit hole. Why is it so hard to get a big Broadway musical to do a decent TV performance? It's rare that a modern musical does not have at least one show-stopping number. The Book of Mormon has--well--most of their numbers, but "Hello," "I Believe," and "Turn It Off" could at least be performed on TV without causing an international incident. Catch Me If You Can has "Live in Living Color" and "Don't Break the Rules." Even flops like Wonderland still have songs like "Off With Their Heads," "Through the Looking Glass," and "The Mad Hatter." So why do so few shows get it right?
Priscilla: Queen of the Desert should be a slam-dunk hit on Broadway. It's campy, it's funny, it's heartfelt, and it's staged within an inch of its life with the latest in costume, lighting, set, and sound technology. You could chose almost any number in the show and create a great PR event. So why do we get disasters like the Tony Awards performance?
None of the show is actually like that. Are people watching that and wondering if Martha Wash and Paul Shaffer are performing 8 shows a week? Do they think it's some bizarre drag medley with loud costumes that doesn't end? The recent performance on America's Got Talent does not make it any clearer what is going on with this show.
What was that? You saw the costumes and the divas. Will Swenson came out and did something totally out of the context of the show that just came across as strange. The judges did not react at all to the performance and Sharon and Howie seemed sad for the performers when they briefly turned to face each other. Well, actually, Howie looked confused and Sharon looked disappointed. Costume reveals got more applause than the singers. That's not good PR.
It's not just Priscilla that's struggling. Have you noticed that Memphis almost exclusively performs their big final number on live TV?
There is nothing wrong with your screen. The Tony Award winning Best Musical from 2010 did two identical performances in two years at the Tony Awards. It's not like there aren't other good songs in the show, right? We'll deal with that issue later today.
And what about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? Surely with a score that will appeal more to pop/rock fans than big Broadway die-hards they'll do great on TV promo appearances, right?
What else have they done?
Ok, they changed out some characters and restaged it for the Letterman stage. Not too horrible.
Does every performance need to be in street clothes? Let's try again. Surely they killed it on the American Idol finale when they needed a good PR boost. Right?
Cirque du Soleil Presents: Spider-Men.
Maybe when they performed at the Tony Awards in spite of not being eligible until the 2012 ceremony?
That's...actually from the show. A big improvement. Have they suddenly stopped being afraid of showing what this show actually is like on live TV?
Yes they have. Fancy that. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is out-performing other Broadway shows in a key category: marketing/promotion. Sure, it doesn't exactly dig them out of near-dead actors and fired director territory, but it's a start.
The difference between a good and a bad promotional performance on TV for a musical is fear. If you're afraid to actually show a good moment from the show, you're going to wind up with something strange or boring like the early Spider-Man appearances and all of Priscilla's performances. If you're actually willing to show a number that stands by itself with even the most basic understanding of the show, you get something awesome like the "Freak Like Me" performance on Letterman. It almost makes me change my opinion of the choreography and bad back-up dancer costumes. They ever reveal the Sinister 6 for the first time on TV. That kind of energy and spectacle will get people interested in a show.
So why won't more shows reveal big numbers? It's going to be different onstage with the actual lights, sounds, and sets. It's going to play different in the context of the show. And the draw of live theater is being right in front of the action. A TV performance will only pull butts into the seats. Legally Blonde saw a nice little surge in theater sales when they had their reality casting show on MTV. It did not bankrupt the show and force it to shutter early; it helped. Same with when they broadcast the entire show on MTV non-stop for a weekend.
If more shows were willing to showcase full songs with slightly modified staging, there would be more genuinely enjoyable promo appearances on TV. Theater is entertainment. If the show doesn't look like it's fun, people aren't going to just decide to buy a ticket because it appears on TV. It needs to sell itself as something unique and worth seeing.
Now is that so hard to do? Apparently so.