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How 'Grease: Live' can win over viewers and critics

Fox is attempting to capitalize on a new live musical trend with 'Grease,' which airs on Jan. 31. What lessons can those working on the musical learn from recent NBC productions like 'The Wiz Live!'?

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    'Grease: Live' stars Julianne Hough (l.), Aaron Tveit (center), and Vanessa Hudgens (r.).
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Another hit musical is heading to live TV.

Following the success of NBC’s live productions of such shows as “The Wiz” and “The Sound of Music,” Fox is set to air “Grease: Live,” an adaptation of the popular 1950s-set musical, on Jan. 31.

“Grease: Live” will star “Catch Me If You Can” actor Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough of “Dancing With the Stars,” and “High School Musical” actress Vanessa Hudgens.

Recommended: The 25 best movie musicals of all time

As the popularity of cable networks and streaming services have increased, broadcast networks seem to be attempting various strategies to garner viewer interest, including TV shows that run for shorter seasons, following the cable and streaming model, or debuting TV shows at different times than the usual fall-to-spring TV season model – for example, Fox’s own hit TV show “Empire” will return this March after taking a long break since its last new episode in December. 

NBC has proven live musicals can attract audiences. Its 2013 production “The Sound of Music Live!,” which starred Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer, was a big success ratings-wise. While the two follow-ups, “Peter Pan Live!” and “The Wiz Live!,” did not do as well in the ratings and “Pan” got a mostly lackluster reception, “Wiz,” which aired this past December, did better in the ratings than "Pan" and was praised by critics and viewers alike.

What can those behind “Grease: Live” do to increase the chances its live musical gets good ratings and a positive reaction from critics and viewers like some of NBC’s productions have done? 

First, never underestimate the importance of enthusiasm from the performers being able to draw audiences in. “The cast was absolutely committed,” Vox writer Caroline Franke wrote of “Wiz.” 

“Grease” star Tveit has starred in multiple Broadway productions and Hough is used to the live format from her experience with “Dancing,” so hopefully they and the rest of the cast can win over viewers with their hard work onscreen as well.

Making a production feel relevant is also important. Salon writer EJ Dickson wrote of “Pan,” “The libretto [is] full of stodgy, regressive ideas about women and gender.” 

By contrast, many critics wrote “The Wiz” felt fresh. “Dorothy and her cohorts got an update in wardrobe, choreography, and even dialogue without tampering with the spirit of the original production,” TV Guide reporter Megan Vick wrote.

With “Grease,” those behind the musical are apparently taking out some elements of the story that probably wouldn’t sit well with audiences today, such as a racist joke. “We can move past some of those [politically incorrect] things and still have the integrity of the story,” director Tommy Kail told Billboard in an interview

Having the musical itself be a favorite of younger viewers is also most likely important. With that, those behind “Grease” seem to have little to worry about. Hough, who was born 10 years after “Grease” came to movie theaters, said in an interview with Variety, “It’s kind of like how kids know Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse and Elvis. You just know ‘Grease’ … I’d do the dances and the songs.”

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