Made-for-TV Musicals Since Gypsy – Ranked from the Worst to Best
With the Live Television adaptation of The Wiz set to “Ease on Down the Road” tonight, I thought it would be fun to go back and look at the Broadway musicals made into TV productions/movies over the last 25 years. Some of them have been terrific and others have had their problems. Still, we always tune in and give them a chance with the hope that we will be delighted and transported by compelling staging, unique interpretations, spot-on casting and, of course, to support such endeavors so that they will continue to be produced. Here are the TV musical adaptations of the last 25 years, ranked from (in this writer’s opinion) from the worst to the best:
South Pacific (2001)
This made-for-TV version of South Pacific turned the compelling musical about Seabees and nurses on an island in the South Pacific during World War II into a turgid, monotonous affair. Despite a glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and a cast that starred Glenn Close, Harry Connick, Jr, and Robert Pastorelli, the TV version never found its buoyancy. True, this incarnation discarded the weird lens filters during musical numbers that plagued the 1958 film, but all of the musical numbers fell flat nonetheless. The one thing that it really did get right was in its tackling of the musical’s racial issues and prejudice, placing them appropriately at South Pacific’s forefront.
Bye Bye Birdie (1995)
I have never seen a musical divide musical theatre lovers more than Bye Bye Birdie. I have always found it a tightly written, joyously melodic musical that deserved far better than the misbegotten 1963 film with Ann-Margaret. That being said, the 1995 made-for-TV movie version stuck closer to the original stage script, but what was fun and frothy onstage was bleak and awkward on the TV screen. Vanessa Williams, Jason Alexander, Tyne Daly, George Wendt, Chynna Phillips and Marc Kudisch were all inspired casting, but Ann Reinking’s choreography (in a rare lapse) was confusing, and the musical ran at a sluggish pace under Gene Saks direction. Some new songs were written that many fans liked, including “A Giant Step” and “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, but they replaced far better dialogue and slowed the proceedings down.
The Music Man (2003)
Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth in the leads should have made this soar, but the 2003 TV version of The Music Man felt overwrought and almost immediately fizzled on the small screen. Many critics balked at how the writers and director imposed a contemporary slant on the story, but the real problem was that it was over-produced and directed at a relentless gait that never allowed breathing room or the gentler, more intimate moments to shine. One standout was a young Cameron Monaghan (TV’s Shameless and Gotham) as an endearing Winthrop Paroo.
A Christmas Carol (2004)
Kelsey Grammer played Ebenezer Scrooge in this TV adaptation of the Madison Square Gardens’ production of A Christmas Carol with a score by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. A Christmas Carol is always a fussy tale to tell. I tend to like the idea of A Christmas Carol more than any one interpretation, and this version was mostly merry and bright, though lacking any particular distinction that set it apart from other versions. It did include many wonderful performers from the Broadway stage including Jane Krakowski, Jesse L. Martin, Jason Alexander, Ruthie Henshall, Linzi Hateley, Julian Ovenden, and Brian Bedford. A well-intentioned, solidly done production that brought joy to many.
The Sound of Music – Live! (2013)
Some might quibble that I put this so high on my list, but there were three reasons to stay tuned-in throughout this live performance: Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, and Audra McDonald. All three from the Broadway stage, playing supporting roles (Elsa, Max and Mother Abbess, respectively), outshined Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer in the leads. Kudos to this version for keeping Max and Elsa’s musical numbers which add complexity and nuance to both their characters and the story as a whole. Even if this version only worked in fits and starts, there were so many great little moments that you found yourself being pulled into them.
Peter Pan – Live! (2014)
Slightly better than The Sound of Music-Live!, Peter Pan – Live! is also an example of Broadway talent outshining the leads. Christian Borle (Mr. Darling/Smee), Kelli O’Hara (Mrs. Darling) soared, but Allison Williams (Peter Pan) and Christopher Walken (Captain Hook) seemed earth-bound and out of their element here. Williams was at least game to try to infuse the production with energy, but Walken was phoning in his performance. The real highlight of this Peter Pan was Rob Ashford’s athletic choreography, which brought the Lost Boys riotously to life.
I am not one of those people who hates the film version of Annie, but that probably is a result of my having seen it before I saw a stage production. Purists understandably prefer the Broadway script and score, and they don’t particularly enjoy the changes the film made. I admit that I think the loss of “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” is a tragedy, but other changes didn’t bother me as much. The made-for-TV Annie didn’t use the song either, but it did come closer to the original script than the film did. Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming led the cast, so the production was acted and sung well. I, however, longed for Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry.
Once Upon a Mattress (2005)
Though it wasn’t a particularly faithful or complete adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress, this made-for-TV attempt had many joyful moments including Tracey Ullman as the brash Princess Winnifred and Dennis O’Hare as a delightfully goody Prince Dauntless the Drab. Carol Burnett, who had played Winnifeed in the original production and two other made-for-TV version of Mattress, played the controlling and manipulative Queen Aggravain this time around. Edward Hibbert, Matthew Morrison, Tom Smothers, and a surprisingly beguiling Zooey Deschanel offered superb support. The first-half is better than the second-half, and my favorite song “Normandy” was cut, but it really captured the wit and farcical nature of the show.
So, technically this started out as an original musical for television and it has received three made-for-TV versions, but though it started there, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella has move back and forth between the stage and television. In the timeframe we are looking it, it is the 1997 version starring Brandy and Whitney Houston that we are talking about. With some charming and memorable performances, a lovely art design, and some interesting interpolations of other Richard Rodgers songs into the score, this variation was quite magical. One of the most delightful additions was using Rodgers’ song “The Sweetest Sounds” from the musical No Strings to open the piece, with Cinderella and the Price wandering around the town wistfully wishing for someone special in their lives. Also, Bernadette Peters as the Stepmother performers a deliciously sarcastic, bitter and up tempo “Falling in Love with Love” from The Boys from Syracuse. Brandy was a charming Cinderella, and the late Whitney Houston, though slightly over the top, was a glittering, ethereal Fairy Godmother.
Peter Pan – Cathy Rigby (2000)
Say what you want about the Mary Martin version (and I do love it), but Cathy Rigby may be the best-executed Peter Pan ever to grace the stage. She is the only Peter Pan that actually feels male and she makes him rough and tumble, athletic and believable. The production values for this version are top-notch, the while cast is agreeable, though you do find yourself pining for Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook, but it’s a hard act to follow. Paul Schoeffler still manages to do a fine job and lands many of the laugh lines. Peter Pan has never been the perfect musical. At times it is disjointed and the score, with several contributors, doesn’t always feel as though it is all of one piece. Still, it beguiles and enchants and, thanks to Rigby, it flies and it soars.
Bette Midler in Gypsy really got the ball rolling for the renaissance of the made-for-TV musical adaptations. Many worried when this was being made that it would be campy and cheesy with Midler’s tendency to take things to drag queen proportions. In the end, we received a well-made film that was faithful to its source material (It certainly outshined the horrid Roz Russell motion picture of Gypsy). What is more, the made-for-TV Gypsy was (at times) inspired and Midler was totally believable as the diabolical stage mother Rose who is determined to make stars out of her babies, whatever the cost. The supporting cast shines throughout, but the accolades belongs to Midler who won a Golden Globe Award for her audacious and well-tempered performance.