This Is the Golden Age of TV Musicals and You’re Missing It

If someone sings a love ballad and no one tunes in, does it make a sound?

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.

cop-rockTV 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.

hsm(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.)

galavantThat 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.

I don't even have time to talk about how awesome Vinnie Jones is in this show.

I don’t even have time to talk about how awesome Vinnie Jones is in this show.

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?”

rebecca-2Crazy 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.

rebecca-3(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).

king-richardThen 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)

wickedLet’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.

13 Comments on “This Is the Golden Age of TV Musicals and You’re Missing It”

  1. yellojkt #

    Part of the problem with Galavant is that they burn off the series during the holiday season (and I’m counting January here) with two episodes per night. That makes it de facto an hour long show and the pacing cannot be sustained that long.

    The songs are clever and the production values are delightfully low rent but there is something just not quite right. It tries to be Spamalot but pulls its punches.

    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is much better at walking a thin line between absurdity and sitcom shallowness. And the musical numbers are simply amazing.


  2. Tulse #

    The musical resurgence is also taking place somewhat in the animated realm. Steven Universe has had full-length numbers that wouldn’t be out of place on stage, and that during actions scenes or montages do indeed serve to provide “time to communicate, music to amplify the message, and talent to win the audience’s affection”. The show is not an actual “musical”, but it does evince a much more fluid relationship with the genre than one might expect from a cartoon. (Songs also play a role in Adventure Time, although with much less regularity.)


    • Ryan Sheely OTI Staff #

      I’d also throw Bob’s Burgers in here as well. It also isn’t a musical, strictly speaking, but there are a lot of great musical numbers that come about diagetically, just because some of the characters are musically inclined. On more than one occasion they put on elaborate musical theater productions with fantastic original songs (my favorite probably being “Electric Love”, the love ballad between Thomas Edison and Topsy, the elephant that he electrocuted.


  3. Jeannie #

    I agree that Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are excellent shows. I love them both equally for different reasons. I really hope Galavant doesn’t get cancelled because it is so witty and fun to watch. It’s frustrating that the shows that stand out as original and brilliant are very often the shows that get the smallest audiences, thereby getting cancelled way too soon.


  4. An Inside Joke #

    As a major fan of musicals, I’ve been eating up every episode of Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend since each premiered.

    I wonder how much of these shows’ anemic ratings is due to their “quirkiness” outside of being musicals. If you cut all the songs from each show, Galavant would still be a broad, punny period sitcom with swords and dragons but none of the violence or nudity Game of Thrones boasts. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is an hour-long black comedy with a strong focus on feminism and mental illness. Neither of those pitches exactly screams “tentpole hit” to me even before you include the musical element.

    I’d be curious to see what would happen with a musical TV show that comfortably fits into a traditional musical genre – a fairy tale, a soap, a romance, etc. I’d say Glee was successful not just because the songs weren’t original, but also because audiences already know what a high school soap opera is, and the heightened emotions/low stakes of high school soaps fit a musical’s tone more naturally than a police procedural (Cop Rock), plus audiences already “get” the idea of a high school musical thanks to Grease and, uh, High School Musical.

    I could totally see a musical version of Once Upon A Time or Friends becoming a smash hit in the way Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend haven’t because the latter two are just weird in their own right, even without the music.


    • Crystal #

      I have to imagine that Crazy Ex-GF’s title and marketing are turning off the people who would otherwise tune in. Many people have tried to convince me to watch it, but everything about the title and the poster (with the lead actress holding onto the balloon and making “crazy eyes”) screams No Way. I’d usually be first in line for a dark comedy with a feminist streak, but the only way I’m watching this is if I’m incredibly desperate for a TV show to binge while I’m paying for Hulu Plus. (I renew and cancel by subscription on and off depending on what’s in season and how badly I want to watch Shark Tank. I feel awful that I’m addicted to Shark Tank because it’s basically capitalism porn but I fing love it).


      • An Inside Joke #

        Just out of curiosity, what is it about the title and marketing that is a turn off? Before it premiered, I thought Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was going to be misogynistic based on the premise and title, but the execution of the pilot won me over. Is your reaction along similar lines, or is there something else turning you off? (Tangent – are ironic titles a bad idea? Last year I tried to convince several of my friends to watch Black-Ish, and discovered a lot of people had a strong negative reaction to the title because they thought it was racist to imply the main character wasn’t “really black” because he doesn’t act stereotypically black. My response “Yeah, that’s the whole point of the show” is a hard argument to make with someone who hasn’t actually seen the show for themselves.)


        • Jeannie #

          I know you asked the other person about the title of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but I’d like to address it, too. I agree with you. I saw the title and rolled my eyes. I ended up reading a couple of reviewers’ positive posts about it so I watched the trailer. It was only after watching the trailer that I had decided to give it a shot. The same thing happened with another terribly named but delightful to watch show called ‘Selfie’. I actually tried to watch ‘Blackish’ and it was really funny. However, it was pretty sexist. Consistently. Also, as someone who has a familiarity with musicals, why do you think they changed the extremely catchy theme song in ‘Galavant’ for the second season? I like the new songs but miss the old one:-)


          • Amanda OTI Staff #

            RIP Selfie! So good, so dead. Really though, are they ever even gonna put it up for streaming somewhere? The pilot was honestly embarrassing, it was so awful, but everything that came after was great, such a sweet show, <3 John Cho <3, and Karen Gillan kicks Sia’s ass with all that sadness :'(
            I felt the same way about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when I first heard about it. But from everything I’ve read about the show, it’s clear the title was supposed to be a joke so I plan to start watching it soon!

          • Amanda OTI Staff #

            Forgot to say, I love Black-ish, but my reaction to half the things that happen on that show is “Rainbow’s too good for Dre.”

        • Crystal #

          Yeah, it’s the whole idea of the “crazy ex-gf.” There’s a great quote somewhere on the internet how a guy calling his ex-gf crazy means that she had feelings and needs and he couldn’t deal with that. Then there’s the actual trope of the crazy ex-gf in movies and TV where the character acts nothing like a real person.

          People say the title is ironic, but the plot summaries have not convinced me otherwise. It’s really the poster that’s doing it for me at this point. With the desperate grabbing of the heart shaped balloon (like it’s pathetic for a woman to want love???) and the rabid expression in the lead actress’s eyes. The poster says, yes, this woman is crazy, let us laugh at her silly, desperate antics. Or perhaps, haha, aren’t romantic comedies stupid? We’re not like that. We’re better! That might not be the show but it will take a hell of a lot to convince me to give it a chance after that. I mostly enjoyed The Mindy Project once I started watching it but the bad marketing/title of that one made me really resistant to jump in. Though I can’t say I care for how the Danny/Mindy relationship has evolved over the last two seasons. Danny is such an ass at this point.

          I suppose have cooled on shows about dating and being single over the years, as I spent more and more time in a long term relationship and eventually got married. Master of None was the last single in the city type of show I watched and I couldn’t get over how little effort the MC put into everything he did, including his romantic relationship.


          • Jeannie #

            I love EVERYTHING you wrote, Crystal! I agree with how weirdly some characters are portrayed on shows and in movies. Two of my pet peeves are when a man is about to be attacked while he is protecting a woman and she screams his name right when he needs to be paying attention to the attacker. You know, because women are illogical and hysterical 100% of the time. Another one has to do with always filming 30 seconds just of strippers on polls whenever there is a scene in a strip club. That being said, I think the character in Crazy Ex-Gf is starting to realize that her approach to her relationship with her ex isn’t healthy and I expect she may start to grow as a person. If the show doesn’t go in that direction, and they continue to put that character into disastrous emotional situations, I’ll stop watching. I know it took much of my 30’s to change some perspectives I had on love from my 20’s and that’s why I relate. Although, hers are quite a bit more over the top:-)

          • Jeannie #

            I love EVERYTHING you wrote, Crystal! I agree with how weirdly some characters are portrayed on shows and in movies. Two of my pet peeves are when a man is about to be attacked while he is protecting a woman and she screams his name right when he needs to be paying attention to the attacker. You know, because women are illogical and hysterical 100% of the time. Another one has to do with always filming 30 seconds just of strippers on polls whenever there is a scene in a strip club. That being said, I think the character in Crazy Ex-Gf is starting to realize that her approach to her relationship with her ex isn’t healthy and I expect she may start to grow as a person. If the show doesn’t go in that direction, and they continue to put that character into disastrous emotional situations, I’ll stop watching. I know it took much of my 30’s to change some perspectives I had on love from my 20’s and that’s why I relate. Although, hers are quite a bit more over the top:-)
            Oh, and I totally agree about the Mindy Project and Master of None. I don’t know if you watch The Arrow. I tried to watch it a few times because my husband loves. But the guy who plays the Arrow is such a tool to his girlfriend and she always has to be the emotionally mature one. Ugh.

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