Monday, 28 September 2009

The gayest show on Earth

Suspension of disbelief - it's the cornerstone of most modern entertainment. And yet most people have an annoyingly inconsistent way of applying it. They'll happily embrace a movie about giant alien robots engaged in a centuries-old battle for galactic supremacy. They'll even sit through a legal thriller that expects them to accept that people will pay thousands of dollars for a whore who looks like Barbra Streisand. But give them a movie where characters sporadically break into song to vocalise their innermost thoughts, and they'll go running out the door.

To many people, the musical is like kryptonite. It's a genre that constantly smashes through the fourth wall like the Incredible Hulk trying to find his car keys. Although Shakespeare often applied the device of the soliloquy to articulate characters' feelings to an audience, these days most people's only familiarity with the technique involves Ferris Bueller and a shower-head.

Despite many people's resistance to the genre, the musical has staged something of a remarkable comeback in recent years. Baz Luhrmann bravely leapt into the unknown when he delivered his masterpiece Moulin Rouge. Although the film itself was rather like eating a giant bag of sweets on an out-of-control carousel, audiences were even happy to embrace Jim Broadbent writhing around and singing Like A Virgin. When Moulin Rouge turned a tidy profit, not to mention a few stomachs, Hollywood's producers suddenly started reaching for their checkbooks and stumping up the cash for anything with a songbook attached.

Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and Hairspray took some of Broadway's biggest shows and channelled them into box-office smashes, in the process treating us to such mouthwatering treats as Renee Zellwegger's singing and John Travolta in a female fat-suit. But the inarguable proof of the musical genre's remarkable comeback came from a low-budget TV movie staring a bunch of shiny orange nobodies, that carried all the dramatic weight of a episode of Balamory.

Kids didn't seem to care that the characters communicated with each other through close harmonies and co-ordinated dance routines - if anything it added to their appeal. The songs were little more than jingles with a couple of extra verses, but young viewers snapped up the soundtrack, the remixed soundtrack and even the karaoke soundtrack. High School Musical was followed by two sequels (with a third in the works), and became a veritable cottage industry for Disney which saw hundreds of millions of dollars in return for its original meagre investment.

Although High School Musical was made for TV, the networks have traditionally avoided he jazz-hands genre when it comes to weekly shows. The one notable exception to this rule came in 1990, when Steven Bochco (the creator of LA Law and NYPD Blue) failed miserably in attempting to fuse gritty police drama with the world of song-and-dance. Cop Rock was such a bad idea it made Eldorado look like a smart investment, with its audience-alienating combination of police procedural and showtunes.

The biggest problem with a weekly musical is actually the issue of budget. On top of all the usual pressures, there are also the additional considerations of music composition, rights management, choreography and extra rehearsal time. As a consequence, musical shows can cost several million dollars per episode - with no guarantee that the audience will tune in.

With all this in mind, it should come as great news that Fox has just announced a full pick-up for hot new show Glee, which means that a full season order has been placed. The show follows the fortunes of a visionary teacher who takes on the running of his school's glee club (that's a mixed-sex choir for the uninitiated), which comprises all the customary high school underdog archetypes.

Following in the tap-steps of Moulin Rouge, Glee uses modern pop songs rearranged to suit the needs of the show, rather than original compositions - meaning it's easier for the audience to singalong. Thankfully, most music artists have offered up the use of their songs for free, understanding that it's the easiest way to get their music in front of 10 million potential listeners. The fact that the show's producers have already lined up several soundtrack volumes already may have helped sweeten the deal.

Musical elements aside, Glee seems to be finding an accepting audience thanks to its dark humour, effervescent energy and exceptional casting. Just have a look at the extended trailer here and try not to smile...

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