Another Year, Another Live Musical

December 1, 2015

Both NBC and Fox will broadcast events this winter.

Last year’s “Peter Pan Live!” brought 9.2 million viewers to NBC. Photo courtesy NBCUniversal.

For the third year in a row, NBC will televise a live musical to kick off the holiday season. Following the success of 2013’s “The Sound of Music Live!,” which boasted 18.6 million viewers, and last year’s “Peter Pan Live!,” with an audience of 9.2 million, “The Wiz Live!” will premiere on December 3 at 8 pm EST. This year’s event, produced by Universal Television in association with Cirque du Soleil, is based on the 1975 Broadway musical, but has a modern spin, with Cirque-trained acrobats as flying monkeys. Not to be left out, Fox will
cast its first live-action musical, “Grease: Live,”
on January 31, 2016.

Months of preparation are required to put together an epic three-hour, one-off show. Casting for these star-studded musical theater events began early in the summer. “The Wiz”
boasts Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier and Common in lead roles, with Fatima Robinson (Dreamgirls) as choreographer and Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) as director. “Grease” headliners are “Dancing with the Stars” pro Julianne Hough as Sandy and pop singer Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, with choreography by Zach Woodlee of “Glee.”

Rehearsals for “The Wiz” started back in October in New York City, where the performers learned new choreography from Robinson before moving into Grumman Studios on Long Island, where the live taping will eventually take place. Broadway regular Ryan Steele, who performed in NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!,” says the long process is necessary to get into such a groove that it is possible to forget about the millions of people watching from home, instead of just a few hundred at a theater. The performers also have to acclimate to a new audience—a camera that is constantly shifting. “Preparation is crucial to a performance like this,” says Steele. “We rehearsed ‘Peter Pan’ in 11 acts. Between each act was our set time for commercial breaks. The breaks were spent changing set pieces, getting in new costumes or running to another soundstage to play on a different set.”

What makes it a hit for both the performers and the viewers at home? “It’s live,” says Steele. “You never know what could happen.”