Ranking Every Broadcast TV Musical Since 2013, From Worst to Best
From Peter Pan to The Sound of Music, here's every live TV musical ranked!
When The Sound of Music Live! was announced in 2012, it was billed as a major television event—and with good reason. The December 2013 telecast marked the return of a nearly forgotten tradition: the live TV musical. While reviews were mixed, impressive viewership made the ambitious production a ratings success and ushered in a new era of broadcast musicals. Efforts since then have been decidedly hit or miss, though, and the future of the genre seems uncertain. While we wait for the endlessly delayed Bye Bye Birdie Live starring Jennifer Lopez, here's a ranking of what we've seen so far.
Rent: Live (2019)
If you're going to call a broadcast "live," you should probably make sure that it actually is. And to be fair to Rent: Live, that was the plan. But after star Brennin Hunt, who played Roger, broke his foot during dress rehearsal the day before the performance was set to air live, Fox made the bizarre choice to air a version of the show that was mostly pre-recorded.
What made this especially strange was that the cast really was performing live to an audience—we just didn't get to see it. The result was a confusing and stilted production that missed the point of live theater and undermined a handful of strong performances, including Jordan Fisher as Mark and Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again (2016)
It's a little unfair to include Fox's Rocky Horror Picture Show on a list ranking the recent broadcast TV musicals, because unlike the others, it was more of a TV movie than a staged musical. But it gets grouped together with the rest often enough to be fair game—which begs the question, why wasn't it done live in the first place? And since it wasn't, why wasn't it more polished? While casting Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter seemed like an inspired choice, she was held back by a production that was far too vanilla to feel like real Rocky Horror.
A Christmas Story Live! (2017)
Of all the live broadcast musicals over the past several years, A Christmas Story Live! is the one most likely to inspire the "wait, that happened?" reaction. Indeed it did, but unfortunately, it just wasn't that memorable. It didn't help that the musical A Christmas Story has never been the beloved classic that the 1983 film is (despite the fact that the show's composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, have gone on to great success with musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and the film The Greatest Showman).
For fans of the movie A Christmas Story, Fox's TV musical adaptation was largely baffling, an overstuffed production with forgettable songs. The real bright spots here were performances from two Saturday Night Live alums with exceptional voices: Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer.
Peter Pan Live! (2014)
Before Peter Pan Live! had even aired, Allison Williams—who starred in the titular role—was feeling defensive, complaining about the concept of hate-watching. And she was right to fear that viewers largely wouldn't take kindly to NBC's version of the classic 1954 musical, which had already had a beloved TV adaptation decades prior; in their review of the show, The Daily Beast called it "an inexcusable bore."
It wasn't Williams' fault that this Peter Pan didn't really work, though: The show as a whole was overly long—especially with the addition of new songs—and it never captured the magic that's an essential ingredient of Peter Pan's success. The weakest link was Christopher Walken, who played Captain Hook. Despite his background in theater, he seemed completely out of his element. Sure, Peter Pan flew, but at what cost?
The Sound of Music Live! (2013)
NBC's The Sound of Music Live! is the one that started it all—or rather, restarted it all. The production was enough of a success to bring back live musicals on broadcast television, and in that sense, we owe it a debt of gratitude. But that doesn't mean it was the best of the best.
Of course, the first live broadcast musical in ages was bound to have some kinks to work out—and at times, that worked in The Sound of Music's favor, giving it a little rough-around-the-edges charm. After awhile, though, the amateur quality started to wear thin. And while Carrie Underwood was better than she was given credit for as Maria, it just wasn't fair to put her and Stephen Moyer on the same stage as Broadway veterans like Laura Benanti and Audra McDonald, who easily stole the show.
Hairspray Live! (2016)
Here's where these rankings go from seriously flawed to legitimately good. That's not to say Hairspray Live! was perfect, but NBC's production of the 2002 musical (which is based on the cult John Waters film) marked a major improvement compared to the network's initial offerings, even if it didn't quite hit the heights of later entries on this list.
Getting Harvey Fierstein to reprise his role as Edna was a major coup, as was finding new talent in the charming Maddie Baillio, who starred as Tracy. Really, the casting of Hairspray Live! was its greatest asset, because it's hard to go wrong with Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, and Broadway sweetheart Kristin Chenoweth. The real MVP of the production, however, was Dove Cameron, the best Amber Von Tussle imaginable.
Grease: Live (2016)
Easily the best of Fox's live TV musicals, Grease: Live earned points for trying to figure out how best to adapt a stage musical for television. Having a live audience added real energy to the proceedings, even if the choice to split onlookers up in various areas so that the cameras could move between scenes was something of a mixed bag. Hey, it was an experiment, and at the very least, it gets points for ambition.
Stars Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough were solid, but the real standouts (again) were Vanessa Hudgens, who bravely performed while mourning her father's death, and Jordan Fisher, whose performance of "Those Magic Changes" was the most electric moment of the entire broadcast.
The Wiz Live! (2015)
NBC's first two efforts in the new era of broadcast TV musicals were strong enough to get the ball rolling, but they were weighed down by the challenges of the format and some very questionable casting choices. The Wiz Live! was the moment they really started to figure it out, particularly when it came to casting.
The production was a great reminder that you can cast big names without sacrificing talent, and this was an embarrassment of riches on both fronts; The Wiz Live! starred Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Common, Ne-Yo… the list goes on. But the wisest casting choice of all turned out to be taking a chance on a newcomer: Shanice Williams. She was a wonderful Dorothy, and watching her performance throughout the evening showed just how special it is to see a star being born.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018)
The last great broadcast TV musical—though hopefully not the last ever—NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert finally found the perfect formula to balance the distinct pleasure of live musical theater with the "filmed for television" format. With a large audience and a dozen cameras, the production managed to be both expansive and intimate, which is exactly the right vibe for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1970 rock opera.
Like The Wiz Live! before it, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert also made sure to hire big-name stars who actually have the pipes and the stage presence to pull off a live musical performance. Sure, Alice Cooper might've earned some mixed reviews, but John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon stunned. More like this, please!