From 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to 'Hairspray' and Beyond: TV's Best Live Musicals, Ranked
Now that John Legend has hung up his "deepest V" and wowed as the tragic, holy hero of Jesus Christ Superstar, the production is the latest to successfully bring Broadway to the living rooms of millions with a pop star at the helm. When Carrie Underwood took up the mantle of Maria Von Trapp for The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, she was the first major recording artist or actor to lead a live experiment that continues to challenge expectations for musical theater with the camera rolling.
Since then, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Chris Daughtry, Mary J. Blige and a handful of major players have been a part of these re-imaginings of your favorite musicals, with Legend and Sara Bareilles now joining their ranks. But how do they and the rest of the Jesus Chris Superstar cast measure up to these broadcasts chock full of triple-threats? Here's a ranking of live musicals that floored us -- and some that should've stayed stuck in rehearsals.
8. A Christmas Story Live! (2017)
I think we’re all still trying to figure out why exactly this got made, but Fox apparently wanted to keep up Grease Live!’s momentum by tapping the same producers of that musical foray, as well as the hit-churning team of Pasek & Paul (of La La Land and Greatest Showman fame) to pen new music for a broadcast version of the song-and-dance iteration of the 1983 holiday classic. (Whew.)
In spite of a fantastic cast that pooled the talents of Matthew Broderick, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Ana Gasteyer and a solid ensemble, A Christmas Story Live! was a critical and ratings flop: Of these eight musicals, it drew the smallest audience with 4.5 million viewers tuning in. -- Hilary Hughes
7. The Passion (2016)
Basically a Moulin Rouge!-style jukebox musical that follows the final hours of Jesus’ life, except Tyler Perry helmed this one and it involves the New Testament and Creed instead of can-can dancers and David Bowie. The 2016 live musical event had a varied and slightly chaotic soundtrack that re-worked ‘90s and ‘00s radio standards, like Jewel’s “Hands,” Train’s “Calling All Angels,” Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” and Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” Though The Passion was an ambitious project for Fox that involved mounting the live production in various locations throughout New Orleans on Palm Sunday (March 20) in 2016, multiple critics compared it to a Super Bowl halftime show instead of the profound musical experience it was going for. -- HH
6. The Sound of Music Live! (2013)
Country queen Carrie Underwood and True Blood star Stephen Moyer are both excellent performers in their own lanes -- and that’s largely what makes The Sound of Music Live! such a confounding mess instead of an outright embarrassment. They tried, that’s for sure, but Underwood and Moyer struggled to carry the challenging Rodgers and Hammerstein classic when they starred as Maria and Captain Von Trapp in the 2013 version.
The Von Trapp family wasn’t into the idea of Underwood as Maria to begin with, and many critics agreed echoed the New York Times in saying that the performance on the whole was "muted and a little sad." (This hurt her feelings and prompted her to tweet that “Mean people need Jesus.”) Still, The Sound of Music Live! struck ratings gold and brought in nearly 20 million viewers when it aired on December 5, 2013. -- HH
5. Peter Pan Live! (2014)
Any situation that involves a tap-dancing Christopher Walken in a pirate’s costume is a good one indeed, and the live adaptation of Peter Pan didn’t disappoint on that front. Allison Williams took a break from her Girls shooting schedule to don Pan’s green leotard and make mischief while crowing through Neverland, but the high-flying fantasy romp didn’t exactly fly with critics: The Hollywood Reporter enjoyed the performances of Williams and Walken especially, but everyone else either found the spectacle lukewarm or outright “hate-watched” it, which Williams totally expected going into the show. -- HH
4. The Wiz Live (2015)
Filling Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s shoes -- or silver slippers and straw hat, technically -- is a tall order, but the cast of the 2015’s The Wiz Live! did right by the soulful take on The Wizard of Oz with plenty of lung-power behind it. Shanice Williams floored audiences with her moving rendition of “Home,” there was nothing rusty about Ne-Yo’s Tin-Man moves and Queen Latifah commanded the attention of Oz as its all-powerful Wizard (with Common as the baddest bouncer in Emerald City, too).
Mary J. Blige as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, had us temporarily rooting for the villainess instead of the heroine with her fiery delivery of “No Bad News.” The Wiz Live! was absolutely the sum of its incredibly talented parts, and one that surely would’ve made MJ proud. -- HH
3. Hairspray Live! (2016)
Ariana Grande may embrace her inner Dangerous Woman when she’s playing her own shows, but she threw herself pigtails-first into playing the shy and sheltered Penny Pingleton in Hairspray Live! (and killed it while doing so, too). Ricki Lake made her debut as Tracy Turnblad in the 1988 film, but Hairspray didn’t cross the musical threshold until 2002 when it hit Broadway with a brand new soundtrack. Since then, the musical’s gotten the full feature treatment thanks to a 2007 update starring Zac Efron, Queen Latifah and John Travolta and a 2016 take for television that had Grande, Jennifer Hudson, newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy and Kristin Chenoweth lending their pop chops to the retro hit.
Hairspray Live! had to meet some high expectations as a result, given the original’s cult classic status and the musical’s sugary appeal. Thankfully, the stellar cast and self-love message made for a home run -- and some excellent live entertainment. -- HH
2. Grease Live! (2016)
This is the production that gave us Carly Rae Jepsen as the Beauty School Dropout herself, but her wonderful turn as Frenchie in Grease Live! is merely one of the many highlights of the 2016 broadcast. Vanessa Hudgens and Julianne Hough shined as the sassy Rizzo and sweet Sandy, and the rest off the all-star cast -- which featured Keke Palmer as Marty, Boyz II Men as the smooth-crooning Teen Angels and Aaron Tveit as the slick-coiffed Danny Zuko -- nailed the difficult task of taking on an iconic American musical while making it entirely their own.
Grease Live! showed us plenty of familiar faces, but in entirely new lights: Hudgens had long since established her triple-threat status thanks to her star turn in High School Musical, but this was a fantastic showcase of Jepsen’s acting and Hough’s range in the halls of Rydell High. -- HH
1. Jesus Christ Superstar Live (2018)
You can be forgiven for assuming the resurrection of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock/hippie version of the Greatest Story Ever Told was doomed to live TV purgatory before watching it. But NBC's live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter Sunday (April 1, 2018) was, incredibly, the best we've seen so far. The brilliant decision to show the production's seams (the audiences' cheers were audible throughout and the live band was visible on scaffolding rigs set up in front of graffiti-covered walls) took off the pressure of delivering a perfectly executed musical fantasy, instead allowing the electric energy of the performers and the stark set design to amaze.
John Legend was divine as Jesus Christ, making it so the in-house audience was eating out of his palm from the moment he stepped out into a fray of frenetic backup dancers. Brandon Victor Dixon proved that the presence of a legit Broadway actor in one of these broadcasts is an absolutely essential element – celebrity stunt casting is fun, but at the end of the day you need a seasoned pro to anchor the affair. Sara Bareilles' Mary Magdalene was a soothing balm to the otherwise hyper emotional production, and Alice Cooper's small but significant turn as a sneering, self-obsessed King Herod was deliciously villainous and campy – like the best Disney baddies, you relished every moment. Surprising as it may seem, a 1970 rock opera drawing on a 2000-year-old story has been, thus far, the most relevant and engaging live musical broadcast of the lot. Let's pray there's more like this coming. -- Joe Lynch