Falling In Love With The Sound Of Music
Chicago Is Spawning Musicals For The Small Screen

Carla Hay

Monday, September 01, 2003

NEW YORK -- The success of the Academy Award-winning film Chicago has fuelled a gold rush of musicals on more than just the big screen. A slew of made-for-TV musicals is set to premiere during the next year.

Among those in development are the ABC musicals 1776, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Once Upon a Mattress. Meanwhile, MTV will premiere a modern musical version of Wuthering Heights Sept. 14; it is also developing three musical movies, Gloss, Phantom and MTV's Hip Hopera: Faust.

There's always been an audience for musicals, but it's an audience that's been underserved for many years, says Craig Zadan, one of the producers of the movie Chicago.

Zadan, along with producer partner Neil Meron, are two of the key business players at the centre of Hollywood's renewed love affair with musicals. The duo's Burbank, Calif.-based company, Storyline Entertainment, is currently developing several musicals for the big and small screens, including most of ABC's musicals.

Storyline is also developing TV-musical versions of Fiddler on the Roof, The Wiz and Mame, as well as a music-based TV drama for Fox called The Rise, about a group of aspiring singers and dancers.

Zadan and Meron were behind the 1993 hit CBS-TV musical Gypsy, starring Bette Midler. "When we started with Gypsy, people laughed at us because they thought musicals hadn't worked for a long time on TV," Zadan says. But then Gypsy was a ratings success.

The ABC network, owned by the Walt Disney Co., has paved the way for the comeback of TV musicals. The network has presented updated remakes of South Pacific in 2001 and The Music Man this year.

The network's musical repertoire also includes Geppetto in 2000, Annie in 1999 and Cinderella, the 1997 musical starring Whitney Houston and Brandy. "Other networks have tried to develop these projects over the years, but most don't have the financial structure in place like we do," notes Quinn Taylor, ABC senior vice president of movies and miniseries. "We have all the other arms of Disney for resources, and the Disney brand name is a huge asset.

"Chicago -- the movie -- has changed the one-upmanship of musicals," Taylor continues. "But oddly enough, I think Chicago may have benefited from these prior TV movies. I think we helped each other."

When it comes to the business of making TV musicals, the general rule seems to be to stick to a familiar story but put a fresh twist on it so that it appeals to the target audience.

"It's probably three times harder to do a musical than other movies," Zadan says. "If a musical is good, it looks effortless, but what you have to go through to make them is extraordinary."

For starters, TV musicals cost more than the average made-for-TV movie. Current industry estimates put the average production costs of TV musicals at $4 million to $8 million. By contrast, TV-movie dramas and comedies have an average production cost of $3 million.

Most made-for-TV musicals also are adapted from previously known work, such as books, or musicals from film or theatre. But the challenge in presenting a successful adapted musical is bringing something so new to the production that it will be perceived as more than a mere retread of the original.

"With Cinderella, a lot of people thought multicultural casting wouldn't work, but we proved them wrong," Zadan says.

ABC's Taylor says, "We're selling the cast name, but we're primarily selling the title of the musical. We learned a lesson from doing an original musical, Geppetto, which wasn't as highly rated as Annie or Cinderella. These musicals are expensive to make, so we can't really run the risk of telling the audience a new story."

Maggie Malina, MTV senior vice president of original movies for TV, says, "pick the right classic, make sure you have a great script and make it relatable to your audience."

Classics aside, broadcast and cable networks often take widely different approaches to producing musicals, which are shaped as much by budget and timing as they are by artistic content.

For broadcast network ABC, airing programs during a family hour prime-time slot means that the network's musicals must appeal to that audience. Taylor explains: "Chicago was a fantastic movie, but you didn't necessarily connect and sympathize with the characters in the way you have to do in television."

Although broadcast networks generally have larger budgets for musicals than their cable-TV counterparts, the cable networks tend to be more creative, according to Zadan. On the cable-TV front, MTV is leading the charge. Disney Channel has also weighed in with TV musicals, most recently with The Cheetah Girls, starring Raven and members of 3LW.

In 2001, MTV presented its first official TV musical, MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen, starring Beyonce Knowles in her first major acting role. Before that, the network had taken a step in the TV-musical direction with the 2000 movie 2gether, a satire on the boy-band craze.

MTV's musical movies in development include Gloss, an original musical about a teenage girl who transforms from a misfit to a member of high society. Also in development are Phantom, a modern take on Phantom of the Opera (with the MTV version taking place in a performing-arts high school), and MTV's Hip Hopera: Faust, which will be a hip-hop version of the Faust story.

MTV's modern musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights was conceived by songwriter/producer Jim Steinman, who is best-known for his collaborations with Meat Loaf. Steinman served as the movie's executive producer, and he wrote original songs for Wuthering Heights. Songs in Wuthering Heights include If It Ain't Broke, Break It, More, I Will Crumble, Shine and The Future Ain't What It Used to Be. The soundtrack, which MTV says will be an EP of about five songs, will be sold on

Steinman says he had a clear vision of how he wanted to do a musical version of the Emily Bronte classic: "It had to be set in Northern California, with teenagers and rock 'n' roll. Steinman gives credit to MTV's Malina, MTV/VH1 president of entertainment Brian Graden and MTV executive vice president of series and movie development Lois Clark Curren for being among the key executives who championed the project.

Wuthering Heights sat in development at MTV for about two years until earlier this year when it went into production. Filming of Wuthering Heights began in May and finished in about three weeks, while Steinman says he had about a month to write original songs for the musical.

Steinman believes the fast turnaround time had a lot to do with Wuthering Heights being on a cable network like MTV. "It's hard for TV movies at MTV to get greenlit because they can be very expensive," Steinman elaborates. "MTV is very profit-minded and isn't known for spending a lot of money on productions compared to other networks. If it was on another network, it probably would've taken longer to film, but they move quickly at MTV."

MTV's Malina explains, "We have a short turnaround time because we have to keep up with our audience's tastes."

For those responsible for casting musicals, the question always arises: Should the stars of the musicals be actors who can sing or singers who can act?

Mike Vogel, who stars as Heathcliff in MTV's Wuthering Heights, was originally considered for a supporting role, but he impressed the film-makers so much with his acting and musical talent that he was ultimately cast in the lead male role.

"I'm a sucker for love stories," Vogel says regarding why he wanted the lead role in the Wuthering Heights musical. "And people always laugh when I say this, but my favorite movie of all time is My Fair Lady."

In Wuthering Heights, Vogel and co-star Erika Christensen do their own singing. Vogel's character also becomes a rock star in the film, which required him to do live concert performances and record songs for the Wuthering Heights soundtrack.

Vogel says that to prepare for the role, he went to rock clubs, watched DVDs from acts like Nine Inch Nails and Jeff Buckley and got advice from the members of MxPx, who have a cameo in the movie.

"My voice grew from the time we did rehearsals to filming and recording," Vogel continues. "I attribute that to becoming comfortable in the surroundings. I pretty much winged a lot of it; that's the beauty of acting."

Steinman adds, "Mike Vogel isn't a singer by profession, but he took the highest leap out of the entire cast. He was really brave. Erika Christensen sounds like Norah Jones but stronger."

MTV's Malina says that with the exception of MTV's Hip Hopera series, the network prefers that its musicals' lead roles go to actors who can sing: "With Hip Hopera, it has to star established music artists who can act. We like discovering new talent, too."

For TV musicals, Zadan says that he and Meron usually like to cast people who have a strong background in theatre, while established stars from TV and film tend to get the lead roles.

Matthew Broderick headlined ABC's The Music Man, while Glenn Close starred in the network's South Pacific.

Cher has committed to star in the TV musical Mame, according to Zadan. Carol Burnett and Tony Award-winning Hairspray star Marissa Jaret Winokur will headline Once Upon a Mattress.

For 1776, Zadan says, we have the biggest movie-star cast we've ever put together for a TV musical. Zadan says he could not reveal any names yet but promises that the marquee will be eye-popping.

The booming interest in TV musicals can be sustained, Zadan concludes, as long as we do them well, take chances and bring new ideas to the genre.