My mom was a middle school music teacher, so I knew the entire score of South Pacific before I could identify the South Pacific on a map. At the age of two, I would dance around with an umbrella telling strangers I was Mary Poppins. My siblings and I were three out of seven Von Trapp kids at a dinner theater production of Sound of Music. I learned to lisp for The Music Man, tap for 42nd Street, and apply spirit gum for Fiddler. I have played both Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, woefully miscast as one (I’ll let you guess which).
This is all to say you guys need to believe me when I say Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are the real deal, and I need you all to start watching them immediately. Both are locked in the ratings dungeon. Insert joke about the fat lady here.
TV has always been treacherous ground for original musicals. In 1990 mega-producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law) created Cop Rock, which tried to combine serious police drama and Randy Newman. This was just as bizarre as it sounds, and its crushing failure has never quite been forgotten in Hollywood. In case that wasn’t a clear enough lesson, in 2007 Viva Laughlin lasted only two episodes, despite a guest appearance from producer Hugh Jackman. Now arguably, a big exception to the TV musical curse is Glee, which was an instant smash in 2009 (but just FYI, I was over Glee before it was cool). But a crucial distinction is that Glee used only pre-existing songs — nothing was written for the screen.
(A couple counterexamples so nobody well actuallies me in the comments: Yes, original musicals continue to thrive on The Disney Channel, but The Disney Channel is an odd duck (mouse?) that seems to use a different playbook than the rest of the entertainment industry. I’ve seen ten episodes of Dog With a Blog and I still can’t believe it exists. Also, it’s fair to note that while musical TV shows are rare, musical episodes are common and usually embraced by fans. There’s probably no Buffy episode more beloved than “Once More With Feeling,” and the Scrubs musical was written by Robert freaking Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, Frozen). However, there’s a big difference between songs as a one-time gimmick and songs as a fundamental part of a show’s DNA.)
That brings us to Galavant. The most important thing to know about this show is that the songs are composed by Alan freaking Menken (note that while both Alan and Robert get the freaking, Alan gets the italics as well). He’s the Disney genius behind the holy trinity of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. So this is Disney doing a musical fairy tale TV show with songs from their musical fairy tale guy. You’d think that if anything could break the TV musical curse, it would be this.
And now I’m smiling like crazy. Hashtag swoon. I want to buy myself a Trapper Keeper notebook so I can decorate it with lyrics and pictures of the cast I cut out of TV Shows With Low Ratings magazine. Somebody please get me Galavant karaoke tracks immediately.
Galavant is the story of Sir Galavant, a famous hero who’s recruited by spunky Princess Isabella to rescue her kingdom. As it so happens, the evil king Galavant is supposed to defeat is the guy who stole his girlfriend, so he’s pretty motivated. But the big picture plot is only a clothesline to hang all sorts of quirky detours on. In one episode, Galavant has to joust against Jon Stamos, playing a French knight named Sir Jean Hamm. In another, they stumble into the Forbidden Forrest, which turns out to be a gay bar run by Kylie Minogue (who then sings the disco number “Off With His Shirt”).
In addition to fulfilling all your shower singing needs, Galavant will scratch your Mel Brooks itch. (When we find out that a famous healer lives in the town of Sporin, there’s a 100% chance that his name will be Neo.) It never met a fourth wall it didn’t want to break. At the beginning of the second season, our heroes launch into the (super catchy) theme song, only to have a bunch of pirates insist (via a new catchy song) that they give it a rest. “We’re gonna have to kill ya if you sing the freakin’ song,” they sing. “It didn’t win an Emmy, now it’s time to move along.” One of my personal favorite throwaway jokes is when Galavant is plotting to fix two characters up. “Let’s all go to dinner together,” he suggests. “Someplace candlelit.” His friend thinks about it. “So… anywhere then?”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which premiered last fall on The CW, looks at first glance like some unfunny standup comic’s b-material. An overworked career girl has a chance run-in with her long lost summer camp boyfriend, instantly becomes infatuated, and moves across the country to stalk the hell out of him. Women, amirite? Except that the show was created by lead actress Rachel Bloom, and she makes Rebecca Bunch one of the most interesting and nuanced female characters on television. “On the entire SAT, I got two questions wrong,” she says, “and in subsequent years, those questions were stricken for being misleading. But I know… nothing about life. Yeah. No. Truly nothing.” She’s a very smart person who has finally realized she’s completely miserable, and she’s ineptly flailing in the direction of happiness.
Rebecca is a highly competent lawyer, but always one Instagram away from a self-destructive spiral. She does shots of vodka out of her pen cup at work and searches her kitchen drawers for stray antidepressants. She tries to win a big case at work by framing the other party for a felony. She’s got a giant apartment full of sterile bare walls and a few pieces of IKEA furniture. And of course, there’s her desperate schemes to win Josh’s heart, from learning to skateboard, to weaseling her way over for Thanksgiving, to renting a party bus. In one of the most heartbreaking episodes, Josh’s friend Greg (clearly being set up as a better match for her than clueless Josh) takes Rebecca out on a date, which is going really well… until she panics and impulsively sleeps with a stranger instead. This sounds like insane behavior, but somehow Rachel Bloom sells it. She stays sympathetic and likable, even when she’s at her most out-of-control.
(As an aside, I wanted to mention how refreshingly often Rebecca is seen in the bathroom. She drinks a bottle of wine leaning against the tub. She sings herself a song inside a porta potty. She’s constantly rushing into stalls to make whispered phone calls. I’m reminded of how Tina Fey always used to go out of her way to deglamorize Liz Lemon, having her lounge around in a slanket eating her night cheese.)
There are two original songs per episode, and the episodes are a full hour (twice as long as Galavant) so the music is less ubiquitous. You can imagine Crazy Ex-Girlfriend existing just fine without them. But the numbers are so clever and well-done that they elevate things to a whole new level. Rachel Bloom rose to internet fame through her YouTube songs (most notably “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury“) and she alternates between plot-driven character-based songs and numbers that can stand on their own as funny videos:
I could talk about these shows all day (I’m trying really hard not to start a laundry list of fantastic supporting cast members). But I want to focus on what makes these shows good musicals, not just good TV shows. Let’s start with Galavant. How do the songs work there? For starters, there are a lot of cute parodies. West Side Story, Les Mis, Oliver… it’s actually hard to think of a Broadway classic that hasn’t had a Galavant send-up. There’s a long and nobel history of musicals aping other musicals (the South Park movie, for instance).
Then there are the songs that juxtapose jaunty tunes with grim lyrics. The king sings, “I want to skewer him with swords and slowly twist ’em / all around his reproductive system.” The chef and his lover duet about the different ways they could poison everybody to death. In these cases, it’s the very idea of people bursting into song that’s the joke.
And then there are the songs that are actually self-contained comedy sketches. The peasants sing about the new democracy they’ve invented, only gradually mentioning all the minorities they’ve disenfranchised in their utopia. Galavant and Isabella remember their first magical kiss, and the more they think about it the more they realize it sucked.
But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is operating at a much higher level. The songs are never just there to be funny (although they always are). They are vital tools to tell us more about the characters and push the story forward.
Let’s step back and talk about musicals in general, and how character express themselves through song. I’d propose that a musical number can do this in three ways:
- It gives a character more uninterrupted words to communicate than naturalistic dialogue would, and often can speak more truthfully in song than they could otherwise. (“There were bells on the hill but I never heard them ringing” is not something Harold Hill would say in conversation.)
- The music supercharges the emotion of the scene. (“And I am telling you I’m not going” doesn’t work the same if you just say it.)
- The actor’s skill as a singer contributes to the character’s charisma. (After the Phantom of the Opera sustains that high note at the end of “Music of the Night” for 45 seconds, it’s hard to dismiss him as a monster.)
Let’s take, for example, the tremendous Act 1 finale to Wicked, “Defying Gravity.” First of all, Elphaba sings the song while being actively hunted by armed guards. Under normal circumstances, stopping to monologue about your newfound empowerment would seem ridiculous. But launching into a song creates a loose relationship with time that allows us to savor the moment (#1). Secondly, the music builds up and up to a soaring (haha) finale that perfectly mirrors what she’s going through, both emotionally and broomwise (#2). And finally, if you were not completely in love with Elphy already, that performance seals the deal (#3, Idina Menzel FTW). You’ve got all three components at work there: time to communicate, music to amplify the message, and talent to win the audience’s affection. People who don’t understand musicals mistakenly assume that bursting into song will kill any connection the audience has with the characters. The complete opposite is true; I’ve seen Wicked three times and I cry everytime she gets up on that broom. Elphaba is never more herself than when she’s singing.
Okay, now let’s look at how Rebecca’s mom makes her grand entrance in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Far from being a time-killing fermata to the story, this is three minutes of rapid fire characterization (and jokes). We get caught up on the whole passive-aggressive, one-sided mother-daughter relationship in one fell swoop (#1). The music instantly lets us know the two keys to Mrs. Bunch’s character: her old-school Jewishness and her manic klezmer energy (#2). And of course, Broadway vet Tovah Feldshuh wins us over with her Ethel Merman brassiness before she puts down her bag (#3).
Or look at “What’ll It Be,” a number Greg sings to himself when his plans to quit his job and get out of town fall through.
These are feelings that Greg might not articulate to anybody, but through the song we get to hear them (#1). It’s a pretty obvious “Piano Man” homage, and that same sense of hopeless frustration drips off the ivories (#2). That resentment is a big part of his character, and it can make him kind of caustic sometimes, but the song transforms it into something beautiful. If he were just saying this stuff it would be too ugly. And speaking of the ivories, this is the first time actor Santino Fontana got to demonstrate his piano skills. The producers knew exactly what they were doing, letting him show off right when his character needs maximum sympathy (#3).
You know who else needs maximum sympathy? Me, if both these shows go off to that piano bar in the sky. Galavant is pretty much toast, but the finale is on this Sunday, January 31. Check it out for a couple more tunes and probably some kissing. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has more of a shot at survival, thanks to various critics practically begging their readers to start watching (The New Yorker did it this week). Rachel Bloom recently picked up a much-deserved Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice award, but ratings are still pretty anemic.
The airwaves are alive with the sound of music, people. Everybody watch so we can make it to Act 2.