Static Sets

The finale of Jesus Christ Superstar features an indelible image. The crucified Christ rises up on his cross into a bright, blinding light as the walls of the stage open up and seemingly swallow him whole. It provoked a rapturous reaction on Twitter, and rightfully so. This choice illustrates imaginative, creative staging that so many of these live musicals sorely lack.

Ironically, Jesus Christ Superstar succeeded by somewhat ignoring the possibilities of its medium. It was staged on a single stage in the Marcy Avenue Armory, before a live audience in Brooklyn. The characters weren’t running off to new sets for each number, like they have in so many previous live specials. It was presented as a “concert” performance — apart from some aerial shots and close-ups, TV viewers were seeing the same thing as the audience at Marcy Avenue Armory. Some critics are already praising this staging as the future of the format. “Although it can be tempting to try to turn them into live TV movies that disguise their origins as theater, it’s probably smarter to just do this,” Linda Holmes wrote for NPR. “Just put on the show. Have faith in it. Hire great performers, and let them work.”

Most of the Fox and NBC musicals have gone very much against that advice, constructing elaborate sets for each of their productions. It’s resulted in some massive stages that end up feeling strangely artificial, even hokey at times. One of the few productions to engage with the TV format in a smart, even thrilling way, was Grease: Live. After a brief prologue, the camera pulls back to reveal Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough standing on a tiny platform in front of a green screen, with mics dangling over their heads. It then follows Jessie J as she wanders through the sets, singing the title song. It’s a fun way to play with the artifice and open up the show’s world, but Grease: Live also knows how to use the powers of television to hide some transitions. When Keke Palmer sings “Freddy, My Love,” a series of tight close-ups transform her friend’s girly bedroom instantly into a USO stage. There, she belts a fantasy number in a glittering red dress you never see her change into — and when the girls return to their sleepover, she’s instantly back in her pajamas. This staging, with the camera’s help, hides more of the seams, making the number just a little more magical than it might’ve appeared on a Broadway stage.

Curtains, Please

Stage musicals routinely run around two hours. But add in all those TV commercial breaks and you’re easily looking at two and a half, three hours of show. The best of these live musical specials run at a somewhat quick clip — The Wiz was just under two hours, Grease was a little over two, and Jesus Christ Superstar was an even two and a half. Paying attention to the time keeps the momentum going and prevents viewers from getting antsy. But the worst live musicals also tend to be the longest. Sound of Music and A Christmas Story both pushed three hours, which is a big ask for viewers, even the ones who already love musical theater. Cinderella, which garnered a Super Bowl-sized audience in 1957, ran for just an hour and a half. Future live productions might want to keep this in mind.

Essentially, all this advice boils down to giving the people what they want. Pick a musical they like, cast some talented people that excite them, keep it moving, and think hard about what staging best suits your production. Oh, and don’t call Christopher Walken.

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