I love a sing-along. I’ll join in with pretty much any song, whether it’s got lyrics or not, but my favourites for flexing my vocal chords are songs with a story, which is why I’m such a big fan of musicals. Sure, I appreciate the achievements of famous duos like Crick and Watson, the Curies, Hillary and Norgay – but I’m detachedly interested in them rather than emotionally stirred. But give me thirty seconds of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Schönberg and Boublil (and Kretzmer), Menken and Ashman or Lloyd Webber and Rice, on the other hand, and I’ll singing like a nun on a mountain.
All of which makes me very sad when I consider that the musical seems to be the one film genre that’s never really made its way to television. Horror, westerns, biography, sci-fi, romance and comedy all span the two media, and, with Game of Thrones, even fantasy’s crossed the divide. But the TV musical is a rare beast.
We do get the occasional documentary about musicals, it’s true; the last few weeks, for example, have given us The Sound of Musicals, a four-part fly-on-the-wall programme going behind the scenes of London’s newest West End shows. Episode one dealt with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, episode two with Barnum and Happy Days, episode three with Top Hat, and the final episode, last week, with Thriller. The programme was described on Channel 4’s website as “an unprecedented look behind the scenes of the cut-throat world of West End musicals”, and, indeed, things were not nearly as wholesome as one might have expected. The first episode was a curse a minute as Sam Mendes and his production time desperately tried to get hold of a Great Glass Elevator for Willy Wonka and Charlie’s final scene (and it turns out that they didn’t quite get it right), and there were very nearly fisticuffs between Cameron Mackintosh and Timothy Sheader, the producer and director of the circus musical Barnum, over everything from choreography to costumes. Plus, since a lot of the filming took place in dressing rooms, we were treated to a naked bottom every ten minutes or so. The hills are alive!
This being Channel 4, there was also tension – and tears. We learnt quite a lot about an off-West End version of Happy Days being developed by newbie producer Amy Anzel, where the danger factor was ramped up by the fact that she was funneling her own money into the project and stood to be moving into a cardboard box if the show wasn’t a hit. Cue shocked faces and some weary ‘making the best of it’ when Craig Revel-Horwood (of Strictly fame) drops out of the team, leaving Anzel to take the risky move of pouncing on the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, at a book signing and forcing him to accept the role of creative consultant. Even more precarious was the situation of poor Christopher Fitzgerald, who, as the lead actor in Barnum, had just a few weeks to learn to walk a tightrope while singing a jolly song about taking life as it comes and giving it all you’ve got – and neither I nor any of the production team took a breath between the moment he stepped out onto the rope and the moment he got to the board at the other end without having plummeted to the floor.
Unfortunately, all this nudity, swearing and peril meant that there wasn’t actually a great deal of singing. We had a couple of verses of Happy Days belted out by Cheryl Baker, some lines of I Will Always Love You from David Ian’s production of The Bodyguard and a selection of cute kids singing about chocolate as part of the Charlie auditions, but the music was very decidedly not the focus of the programme. Once again, I longed for the brief but glorious time when musicals songs were given top television billing, in the form of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and its successors. A TV talent show, on primetime BBC1, hosted by Graham Norton, looking for new singers for West End shows? Yes, please. We had a host of demure ladies looking to be cast as Maria in The Sound of Music; then a series of mop-top men auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; then a double whammy looking for a buxom beauty and a cute orphan to play Nancy and Oliver (respectively) in Oliver!; and finally the search for a young, sweet girl to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Not all of the series winners were my favourites, but most of them have since been very successful – the Maria winner, Connie Fisher, was interviewed in The Sound of Musicals, the Joseph winner Lee Mead got hitched to Denise Van Outen and the Nancy winner Jodie Prenger has been on Pointless Celebrities, which equals stardom in my book. And, above all, we got to spend a couple of hours every weekend watching people sing songs from our favourite musicals. Fantastic.
But, as I’ve lamented before, this delight died a spectacular death when ITV took over and gave us the cheesy, soulless Superstar (even the name is tacky, urgh). Apart from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton’s flippant suggestion of a late-night revival of the franchise on last week’s The Graham Norton Show – ALW’s new musical, Stephen Ward, is somewhat less cheerful than a lot of his previous work – there’s no real sign that we’ll ever get it back.
So, since then, the best that we hardcore musicals fans have been able to get from the small screen is the occasional musical episode of a non-musical TV programme. Bizarrely, this is an increasingly popular way of doing a celebratory episode of an established show, with the justification for the characters bursting into song at strategically-placed intervals ranging from quite clever to extremely tenuous. The Simpsons and other animated programmes get away with it because they’re generally ludicrous in terms of continuity and plot at the best of times, leading to a whole host of animated musical episodes bringing us such classic songs as ‘Cut Every Corner’ and ‘See My Vest’ (The Simpsons), ‘The Life of the Wife is Ended by the Knife’ (Family Guy) and ‘Daddy’s Gone’ (American Dad).
Live-action shows have also had their fair share of musical episodes, some more convincingly than others. Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy both explain the sudden singing of their musical episodes by stating that a character is hallucinating, although in both cases the singing continues even when the hallucinating character is nowhere to be seen. Credit must be given to Scrubs for the song ‘Guy Love’, which perfectly encapsulates the J.D./Turk relationship; but overall Grey’s Anatomy wins out, largely due to the presence of Sara Ramirez, who started her acting career on Broadway, as well as a selection of other cast members (Kevin McKidd, Chyler Leigh, Chandra Wilson) who could very decently carry a tune. The winner, though, in terms of musical episodes, has to be ‘Once More with Feeling’ from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not only because it makes complete sense within the context of the show (the singing is caused by a musical demon summoned from the local Hellmouth – happens all the time), but because it’s a proper celebration of all things musical(s). There are multi-part harmonies, cracks in the fourth wall, knowing references to how musicals work (“Would you say it was a breakaway pop hit, or more of a book number?”), sequences that incorporate both dancing and staking, and, in the words of the show itself, “the curtains close on a kiss”. No wonder it was the only TV entry to make it into Channel 4’s list of the 100 greatest musicals of all time.
Yet, despite these occasional musical moments, the TV musical – that is, a whole TV series that consistently incorporates songs into its narrative – is practically non-existent. One could argue that Glee is a musical, but too often the songs, although thematically related to what’s going on in the show, are stuck in on top of the action without really being part of it. The only promising examples I can think of in the last ten years are Blackpool, a six-part serial from 2004 with David Morrisey and David Tennant (him again), and Flight of the Conchords, starring New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo. Even then, the actors in Blackpool just sang along with pre-existing pop songs (although often to great effect), while the only people who join in with the songs in Flight of the Conchords are the Conchords themselves, Bret and Jemaine, and occasionally their hapless manager Murray* (again, with outstanding results). Thus, these programmes are tantalisingly close to being true television musicals; but they’re not quite there.
Which is why I’m calling on my heroes. Claude! Alain! Herbert! Alan! Andrew! Tim! Think of us! Think of the people who want to enjoy a quiet night in, but don’t want to miss out on the singing and dancing, the lights and orchestra, the highs and lows, the major third and the perfect fifth! Think of us and write! And then, just maybe, the small screen will come alive with the sound of music.