Emmy Contenders Explain Why 62 Million Watched TV Musicals Like ‘Grease Live’: ‘Danger!’

The directors of “Grease Live!” “The Wiz Live!” and “Hamilton” explain why Broadway classics are hot on TV: “You never know what will happen”

Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit in Grease Live
Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit in "Grease Live!"

A version of this story on live TV musicals first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy Issue.

Since NBC’s 2013 “The Sound of Music Live!” with Carrie Underwood, over 62 million people have watched live Broadway musicals reimagined for TV, notably “The Wiz Live!” last December and “Grease Live!” in January.

And the daredevils who are bringing the genre back — or rather, inventing a whole new genre that marries theater and TV — feel like pioneers at a barn raising, helping and cheering each other on.

Take Thomas Kail, who went from staging Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s titanic Tony winner “Hamilton” on Broadway to co-directing (with “Dancing With the Stars”‘ Alex Rudzinski) Paramount and Fox’s 2016 “Grease Live!” starring Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit, with conspicuously strong supporting work by Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer and Carly Rae Jepsen.

“We’re all part of a larger movement,” said Kail. “I watched ‘The Wiz Live!’ on Dec. 3 with my entire ‘Grease’ company. We’d just started rehearsals, and it was so thrilling. There was an energy around that show, and we caught the spirit as well.”

The Wiz Live
“The Wiz Live!”

“The Wiz Live!” producers felt the communal spirit, too. “‘Grease Live!’ was very supportive — we got lots of tweets, and we were supportive when they broadcast,” said Craig Zadan, who kicked off the theater-on-TV revival with co-producer Neil Meron on “The Sound of Music” and last year recruited Queen Latifah as the Wiz and Amber Riley, Mary J. Blige and Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black” as good or wicked witches.

The resulting show got more tweets than any special ever measured by Nielsen except political and awards events–and its producers also got a shout-out from another of their competitors, Tyler Perry, who leaped into the arena by staging Fox’s 2016 “The Passion,” starring Jencarlos Canela, Chris Daughtry and Trisha Yearwood. “He called to wish us luck, and said it was important that the show succeed — because if it doesn’t do ratings, it may be difficult to do it again,” said Zadan.

With shows like “The Passion,” “Grease Live!” and Meron and Zadan’s own annual productions (in addition to “TSOM” and “The Wiz,” they staged 2014’s “Peter Pan Live!”), the genre of staged TV musicals is clearly a juggernaut. Musical numbers are even infiltrating the talk shows of Broadway-musical-friendly Stephen Colbert and James Corden, while Zadan and Meron also leaned heavily on musical numbers when they produced the Oscars from 2013 to 2015. The key to this renewed popularity is a word that Michael O’Donoghue once spray-painted on the wall at SNL: “Danger.”

grease live review
“Grease Live”

“Danger, that’s why people watch awards shows, too,” said Meron. “Who’s gonna trip, forget names? You never know what’s going to happen.” Case in point: the fluky Los Angeles storm that struck “Grease Live!” and forced an emergency rewrite. “We had an opening number that happened under a structure we could not use because of the wind,” said Kail. “It was 2:30, we were going on at 4, so we came up with an alternate end to the opening we’d been rehearsing for six weeks. We rehearsed it a few minutes after 3, the rain hit at 3:59. The cast was so unfazed and ready for the moment.”

Added Meron, “Live musicals are terrifying for actors, because we’re living in an age of Auto-Tune. But if you hit a bad note on TV in front of millions of people, that note will never go away.” When Underwood played Maria, she could have fallen flat on her face — and some critics said she did as an actor, despite her lovely voice. Yet sharing her likely terror was the attraction, and about 19 million people watched her take that risk.

“When you look right down the barrel of the camera, the little red light has X-ray vision for confidence,” said Kail, who believes that the tension helps create excitement akin to a sporting event. “I grew up watching sports more than anything. When I worked on the 2010 Broadway play ‘Lombardi,’ I learned there’s a lot that theater and sports have in common. There’s an appetite for people to have an experience at the same time as people all over the country, all over the world. Awards shows, music and sports are what people congregate to watch.”

The Passion
“The Passion”

But nobody would have bet money on live TV drama without the more recent success of Zadan and Meron. “We cut our teeth on ‘The Sound of Music,’ when we were reinventing something that was lost, learning as we went along,” said Meron. “With each iteration you learn and adapt. ‘Sound’ was incredibly stagelike and theatrical, and ‘Peter Pan’ was done with more 360-degree camera.

“With ‘The Wiz,’ we wanted to create something unique with LED screens, the pop and colors and richness of it. With Shanice Williams, a newbie star thrust in front of the entire country, we thought, ‘Will she be able to hit that gigantic high end note on “Home”?’ We were just praying in the truck, because the whole show builds toward that moment. She nailed it effortlessly and we all breathed a big sigh of relief.”

Even with their ratings success, Zadan and Meron said they’ve been working with less money as their journey through the Broadway canon has continued. “We’ve been getting smaller budgets, because we needed more when we were figuring it out,” said Zadan. “We didn’t know how much to spend, and now we’re better at managing it. It’s like the Oscars: The first year you don’t know what you’re doing–how could you? The second was light years better.”

Carrie Underwood in "The Sound of Music Live!"
Carrie Underwood in “The Sound of Music Live!”

They’re now paying attention to their colleagues in live theatrical TV, Meron added, pointing to “Grease Live!” as a breakthrough in the way the production went outdoors and used multiple stages. Far from the old-school staginess of “The Sound of Music,” “Grease Live!” literally spotlighted its theatricality, breaking the fourth wall.

“In the very quick costume change right after Aaron and the guys go from ratty uniforms into fantasy and back to ratty real clothes in ‘Greased Lightning,’ Aaron looks in the camera and winks,” said Kail. “We thought it would draw in the audience: ‘Look what we’re watching, look what we’re all in together.’”

Like his colleagues in the TV-musicals game, Kail is upbeat about the genre’s future. “There’s a movement that’s happening we feel proud to be a part of,” he said. “All these live musicals on TV are opening this window up, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.”

See more of TheWrap Magazine’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy Issue: