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'Grease: Live': Are these TV musicals getting better?

'Grease: Live' aired on Fox on Jan. 31 and seems to have won over many viewers and critics, echoing the critical and ratings success of NBC's latest effort, 'The Wiz.' How are networks continuing to try to bring in viewers with these live events?

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    'Grease: Live' stars Julianne Hough (l.) and Aaron Tveit (r.).
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Network Fox got in on the popularity of live musicals with their recent production “Grease: Live,” which aired on Jan. 31 and seems to have won over many viewers and critics.

“Grease” starred Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, and Vanessa Hudgens. Fox announced it would be moving forward with the production following the success of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!,” which aired in 2013. NBC has since aired “Peter Pan Live!” and “The Wiz Live!,” the latter of which aired this past December and was particularly well-received by critics and viewers.

The production of the popular 1950s-set musical “Grease,” which transferred its success to the big screen in the 1970s with a film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, appears to be another live musical hit. 

Recommended: The 25 best movie musicals of all time

Ratings for the production were good, with Hollywood Reporter writer Michael O’Connell writing that the numbers “give the Fox telecast a big showing… a ratings success.” 

Meanwhile, many critics seem to have been won over by the production. Associated Press writer Mark Kennedy wrote of the show, “Fox proved it could up the ante in the new mini-industry of musicals on TV… Some missed opportunities included too much of the choreography and character mannerisms cribbed from the film.” But Mr. Kennedy praised much of the cast, writing that “a charming and generously coiffed Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko made a great case to America to be listed among its top leading men… real credit goes to Vanessa Hudgens, who was an electric, complex Rizzo.”

Variety critic Maureen Ryan wrote that “thanks to exceptional work from [‘Hamilton’] director Thomas Kail and several sterling supporting performances, much of ‘Grease Live!’ was as sweet and tasty as root beer float… All in all, ‘Grease Live!’ got most of the big things right – the colorful aesthetic, the rip-roaring big dance numbers, the goofy, careening energy. If the central romance was a snooze, well, never mind – that raucous hand jive will linger in the memory much longer.” 

New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger found the production “cinematic, impressively so… [‘Hamilton’ director Thomas] Kail’s production certainly raised the bar in terms of how much razzle-dazzle, innovation and star power these extravaganzas will need to have… This ‘Grease’ was in a sense a new art form: not theater; more like ‘Grease’ the movie, but performed live… What happens, though, when spectacle replaces intimacy is that characters and story disappear, too.” 

Putting them on the air continues to demonstrate networks’ apparent attraction to “event TV.” As networks fight for viewers’ interest in an increasingly busy TV world, with the prevalence of cable and streaming shows, making a show something audiences have to tune into that night, at the time it airs, can work out well for networks.

While "Music" was a big ratings hit, both it and "Peter Pan," NBC's second live show, were not well-received by critics, in contrast to "Wiz," NBC's 2015 live musical, and "Grease."

With two networks now airing live productions, can the two make their shows feel different enough? Are NBC and Fox risking viewer fatigue?

The ratings for particularly “Wiz” and “Grease” show that the interest is still there, even though the form is perhaps no longer a novelty. And Fox’s “Grease” production took a different approach than the NBC productions, with NBC usually trying to present their shows as picture-perfect but Fox showing the cast backstage, among other touches. 

If the two networks continue to keep their productions different enough that their shows won't feel like more of the same and continue to select shows like “Wiz” and “Grease” that will attract wide interest, we may be seeing more of these live productions for years to come.

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