Before it even opened on Broadway in 1954, the producers of the musical “Peter Pan” had struck a deal with NBC to present it live on television, after its Broadway run, with its cast intact, including the star Mary Martin. It was such a success – 65 million people watched it; one critic marveled at the merging of “the advantages of live theater and live television” – that it was repeated live the following year.
Some six decades later, NBC presented a new “Peter Pan Live!,” created just for broadcast, this time marketed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where viewers commented in real time during the broadcast, largely with snark, helping to coin the term “hate-watching.” The show was viewed (hatefully or not) by 9.2 million viewers. The lead, Allison Williams, has never performed on Broadway.
But the comparison is not meant as nostalgia for the good old days. “Peter Pan Live!” may have gotten fewer viewers, but it was broadcast in the same decade as a rash of popular television series like “Glee” that were labeled TV musicals.
In “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical” (Oxford University Press, 336 pages), author Kelly Kessler, a professor at DePaul University, attempts to chronicle these two eras and everything in-between — also, as much as possible before (such as the first original musical on television, “The Boys from Boise” in 1944 on the now-defunct Dumont network), and after (such as the “disaster” of Rent Live.) Each of the seven chapters, organized chronologically, is devoted more or less to the programming and trends of a particular decade.
This is an unquestionably well-researched tome, but two passages — one in the beginning, one near the end – should sound the alarm to all but the most committed readers. “Broadway in the Box was truly a ten-year labor of love,” Kessler writes in the Acknowledgements page. In the Conclusion, she writes: “I come to the end of this book exhausted and overwhelmed by the realization that although I knew there was a world of musical TV out there to be discovered, rediscovered, and shared, I too was unaware of the sheer volume of television that had embraced the musical for the medium’s near century of existence. Even after seven chapters and over 90,000 words, I feel like on some level I have merely scratched the surface….”
“Broadway in the Box” was indeed for me an exhausting and overwhelming surface treatment of a subject (both “Broadway” and “musicals”) that the author defines way too broadly. Throughout the book, we get information not just about full productions of Broadway musicals (and original Broadway-like musicals) that were presented on the air, but also about excerpts of Broadway musicals sung on TV variety shows (Between 1948 and 1955, we’re told, 52 episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show included at least one Broadway number), and Broadway songs sung on air by performers who had never been on Broadway, and Broadway stars making appearances on TV, and television performers who had once performed on Broadway. The chapter on the 1960’s focuses on the rise of female talent in television variety shows, Carol Burnett especially. (“No longer relegated to second banana, eleven different musical actresses hosted twenty-four specials or series between 1965 and 1969 alone.”)
One chapter focuses on how the TV musical series Glee, Smash, Galivant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend embraced social media and other new methods of marketing to engage its fans (with a baffling three-page digression about “Broadway Fandom” that crams in everything from the TKTS ticket booth to #Ham4Ham to Spring Awakening’s website)
One of the two most coherent chapters, about the 1980s, talks about the rise of cable TV (“the sole chapter in which non-network programming takes center stage”), and its effort to deliver musicals to niche markets. The last chapter tells the story of “Peter Pan Live!” and the other live musicals on network TV starting in 2013. This trend in some ways brings television back to its beginnings, when musicals were broadcast live. (There were some 70 on network television between 1944 and 1955, Kessler says, including “original musicals made just for the small screen.”)
The author’s almost exclusive interest in network programming limits the relevance of the later chapters of “Broadway in the Box” — all the more so because she obviously finished the book last year, before the pandemic-induced wholesale transfer of theater onto screens, and the success of Hamilton on Disney+. But there is one observation in the book that, unintentionally, offered me some insight into our current moment and its potential. In the earliest days of television, the author tells us, the musicals were broadcast just once, and were not preserved (“…all of the networks taped over their two-inch master tapes because of the prohibitive cost of the tapes themselves…”)
So those early television musicals were arguably just as evanescent an experience as live theater.