Allure of live stage shows not quite what it was when NBC did Sound of Music

Why This Matters: Networks count on such live events as musicals to capture the attention of time-shifting-prone audiences.

Live musical fans suffered through the holidays with none of the shows that have been lavish spectacles during year end since NBC aired The Sound of Music in 2013.

On Jan. 27, Fox offers a belated Christmas gift to fans of the live productions, with Rent, about struggling artists in late-’80s Manhattan.

Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn said music is part of Fox’s DNA, pointing to Empire, Star, The Masked Singer and past hits Glee and American Idol. “We’re always looking for signature programming,” he said, “where music helps tell the story.”

In an era of binge-watching and declining ratings for appointment- based linear television, sports and live events remain the best bets for some networks to capture an audience’s imagination — and ratings, as viewers watch it in all its spontaneous glory.

The current chapter of live musicals began with The Sound of Music, with Carrie Underwood playing the dulcet nanny, on Dec. 5, 2013. The novelty of the concept, paired with Underwood’s star power, catapulted the three-hour event to giant numbers for NBC, including a 4.6 rating in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen, and 18.5 million total viewers.

NBC’s entertainment chairman was Bob Greenblatt, who was a huge fan of the live musicals and had theater producing chops to boot. The musicals became a yearly event, with Peter Pan Live! a year later (2.4 rating in 18-49), The Wiz Live! in 2015 (3.4) and Hairspray Live! in 2016 (2.3).

Ratings didn’t come close to those for The Sound of Music, though Fox’s production of Grease: Live in January 2016 drew over 12 million viewers, and a notable 4.3 rating.

Adam Siegel worked on Grease: Live, and is executive-producing Rent as well. “Grease always remembered that it was live,” Siegel said of its success, “and never let the audience forget that.”

Fox’s other live productions include The Rocky Horror Picture Show in October 2016 (1.7 rating) and A Christmas Story Live in December 2017 (1.5).

Is Live Dead?

Greenblatt departed NBC in September, and Craig Zadan, who executive-produced the NBC musicals alongside Neil Meron, died in August. Those developments make some wonder about NBC’s commitment to live musicals. Its last was Jesus Christ Superstar in April 2018.

Bye Bye Birdie, with Jennifer Lopez on board, was announced in October 2016, with a 2017 air date planned. It has not yet run; an NBC insider said Bye Bye Birdie is on indefinite hold due to Lopez’s hectic schedule.

NBC does plan to do Hair Live! this year.

Set in New York’s East Village, Rent is executive-produced by Marc Platt, who was part of the Grease: Live team, Adam Siegel, Julie Larson, Al Larson and Revolution Studios’ Vince Totino, Scott Hemming and Marla Levine. Rehearsals started in Burbank in late November.

Thorn called Rent “an iconic musical” whose songs, written by the late Jonathan Larson, remain “the gold standard” in theater. He’s optimistic about the Nielsens. “We have high hopes,” he said. “We’re aware of how crowded the marketplace is, but we really think this can break out.”

Siegel said Rent’s mix of “maximalist” rock tracks and “very intimate” numbers makes for a standout show. He called Rent, inspired by Puccini’s opera La Boheme, both timely and timeless, and said the allure of live television gives it extra pop.

“Live TV is a destination, an event,” Siegel said. “It’s something that exists in a moment.”

Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, noted the shift from G-rated shows such as The Sound of Music and Peter Pan to edgier stuff such as Hair and Rent. Rent, for its part, touches on the then-current HIV issue in New York. “The challenge is to make it broad enough to appeal to a large audience, yet retain the edge that made it culturally hot at the time,” she said.

Thorn said live TV is a priority for Fox, but added that the network will be “incredibly selective” about future live musicals. He did share that Fox is keen to develop its own original production, perhaps a jukebox musical centered on a lone artist. “We’ll take an incredible artist and use their music to tell a fiction or nonfiction story,” Thorn said.

Thorn would not share which artists Fox has in mind, but said discussions are taking place with a few.

Live musicals are extremely expensive and are hardly guaranteed to draw major ratings. Any potential live musical project for Fox will be put through the same filter as most any other production at the network. “Can it be culture-piercing?” Thorn asked. “Can it break through a crowded marketplace, and can we make it our own cultural event?”

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