The musical TV genre has experienced massive creative growth recently. The relaunch of the genre started out with “Glee” in 2009, which used pop songs to tell its story. The show was a massive success for FOX in its first season, but it never really found an ability to tell its story through song. Then “Smash” arrived onto the scene, bringing in a mix of contemporary pop and original content. The show was touted as the next big hit by NBC when it premiered, but it never connected with the public, not lasting past its second season. Then along came “Galavant” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which have tiny viewerships, but are two of the best out there right now.
This leads to the question: is there something inherently limiting, from an audience perspective, about musical television shows? If so, that’s really disappointing, because both “Galavant” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are brilliantly inventive, using their songs to tell their story in new ways.
Something astonishing happened during the second season of “Galavant.” The show elevated itself from a cheap musical I’d watch out of respect for the format to something fun and unique. Most of that change came from the music itself. In the first season, the songs told jokes, but they didn’t lead anywhere for the stories or the characters. Composer Alan Menken (who wrote the music for many of Disney’s ’90s musicals) expanded the scope of the songs, using them to address both humor and character growth. In the second season, the show lost its fear of advancing its characters through song. A moment in the show’s finale comes to mind. King Richard (Timothy Omundson, “Psych”) meets his “inner-child” in a song addressing his hopes and fears. He sings: “Will my star ever rise? / Will my life ever change? / Am I destined to be achievement-free forever?” This type of self-reflection through song is something the show would never have attempted in its first season, and shows a lot of growth on the show’s part.
Some of the songs end up as full-fledged parody. A song where Galavant (Joshua Sasse, “The Neighbors”) tries to set the mood for a date between Richard and Roberta (Clare Foster, “The Bill”) reminds me of a classic “Little Mermaid” tune, though its refrain of “Maybe you won’t die alone” is slightly different from “Kiss the Girl.” And one scene involving Richard and Roberta sharing the story of first sexual encounter to their zombie army features a similar tune to “Grease” ’s “Summer Nights,” complete with zombie grunts filling for in for the greasers’ responses.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is also pushing the musical-comedy boundary, using music to deal with some of the show’s deeper themes surrounding mental illness. During the series, there are a few moments where Rebecca (Rachel Bloom, “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury”), the show’s main character who moves to West Covina, CA to follow her former summer-camp boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III, “Hostages”), is upset because of something Josh did, and each of these moments features a song. The first, “Sexy French Depression,” puts Rebecca’s feelings front and center with a scene that uses berets and a black and white aesthetic. The second, from the latest episode when Rebecca’s lies catch up to her and push Josh away, features Rebecca singing “You ruined everything, you stupid bitch / You’re just a lying little bitch who ruins things and wants the world to burn.” It’s heartbreaking to watch her bash herself like this, but it’s a beautiful way to illustrate the impact of the moment.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” also does something the best musicals do: use its music to address character relationships. In a scene from earlier in the season, Josh addresses Rebecca after a moment of contention between her and the rest of the group, and the two share a reprise of “West Covina” where the two affirm their friendship. It’s a moment that only a musical could do, putting two voices in tight harmony.
But I don’t want to discount the success of live musical broadcasts from NBC and FOX, which have been big fat hits for the networks, and pretty damn good as well. Those events are better able to draw an audience because the networks can push them as happening live. They also utilize big industry names who probably wouldn’t commit to a full series.
Still, despite all the warm critical reception of these new musicals, neither of the continuing series is likely to see another year. “Galavant” ’s big supporter, Paul Lee, was just fired from his position as ABC’s president of entertainment, and the ratings for its recent run were just abysmal. And less than a million people watched the premiere of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” with little growth in DVR views. That signifies one of two things: either viewers didn’t find the show or just outright rejected it.
That’s such a sad thing for me. People will watch the live broadcasts of known musicals, but they either can’t find or won’t watch the weekly series. This is an unfortunate situation, because both the shows are using songs to tell stories in ways that other series just can’t. They’re exploring new ways of advancing story and character through their original music, and it’s a shame that they probably won’t be able to tell these stories for much longer.