As a youngster growing up in British Columbia, Carly Rae Jepsen would dress in costume to belt out tunes from the musical Grease.
“I grew up in a family that loved music and musical theatre,” Jepsen said this month in Los Angeles. “My stepmother was the first to show me Grease, she was the type to dress us up and have costumes with a ponytail, and dance and sing it out.”
While Jepsen’s favourite character was good girl Sandy (played by Olivia Newton-John in the 1978 movie), she is instead playing scatterbrained Pink Lady Frenchy in Fox’s Grease: Live, premiering Sunday at 7 p.m.
Ironically, Frenchy is one of the few major characters in the musical that doesn’t have a solo. But producers couldn’t have the voice behind the biggest global pop single of 2012 (“Call Me Maybe”) on the show without a tune. So Jepsen will have her own original song.
“As an adult it’s great to take on a character with some sass and some ditziness, and a little bit less of a vanilla quality than I’m used to playing,” says Jepsen. “I love Frenchy’s innocence and optimism.”
The song, says Jepsen, is called “Angel,” “a prayer asking for guidance after beauty school didn’t work out for Frenchy.”
With the success of NBC’s live Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz, Fox is also betting on the live musical theatre business to attract audiences.
As copycat moves go, it’s not a bad one. Broadcasters have been bleeding audience share and live events are one way to ensure destination viewing.
It hasn’t been lost on programmers that live event programming such as the Super Bowl and the Oscars have traditionally delivered the largest ratings.
“The live event seems to unify people who have so many different choices,” says Broadway and film producer Marc Platt (Wicked, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde) in an interview. “Watching it live in the culture we have now is a sort of magnet that brings eyeballs back to the screen. I think it’s much more interesting seeing it live as opposed to seeing it on tape in the ether somewhere.”
With the Super Bowl, it’s easy to understand why you have to watch live: no one wants to have to wait a day to find out who won.
Live theatre is a different beast. The live broadcast adds an element of danger that can be attractive to audiences who are seeking a sense of connection with celebrity.
Will Jepsen flub her lines? Can Dancing With the Stars judge Julianne Hough (who plays Sandy) really hold a tune? (She can.)
Jepsen says the live element of the show means actors have to hit their marks right away; there is no warm-up.
“You can’t compare Broadway to this,” she says. “You don’t have the opportunity to get your nerves out on Day 1. You have to bring everything to the table right away.”
Before Grease, Jepsen’s first high school production was starring in Annie in Grade 8. The experience taught her that she wanted to be a performer.
“I fell in love with it. I never had such a big rush.”
Fox is taking no chances with the Grease: Live, hiring Thomas Kail, the director of Broadway’s hottest show, Hamilton. Grease also stars Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) as Betty Rizzo and Boyz II Men will perform the role of Teen Angel.
But don’t expect a cameo from Newton-John or John Travolta, who played the film version of Sandy and Danny, says producer Platt.
“They’ve both been enormously supportive and send a lot of love,” said Platt. “I’ve known them for a long time and they are very excited because, for them, Grease is such an iconic part of each of their careers and so significant, and the fact that it’s lived on for so many years has been a blessing to them. So they are very excited about it and I know they’ll both be watching.”
Meanwhile, Jepsen’s voice will be all over TV this winter. She’s singing the title track to the Full House theme song in the rebooted Fuller House on Netflix.
“I’m a true blue Full House fan,” she told TV critics in Los Angeles. “I remember I didn’t know how to tell time when I was younger, and we were going on a camping trip and I asked how long till we’re there, and they said ‘three more Full Houses’ and I knew exactly what they meant.”
Going Live: What’s in store for viewers
Good morning Baltimore! NBC Entertainment chair Bob Greenblatt told TV critics recently that the next live musical on the network will be Hairspray. The 2007 movie starring John Travolta was based on a Broadway musical that was in turn based on a movie by John Waters about a teenager in the 1960s who aspires to dance on a local TV show. Greenblatt says casting is still in the works, but he would love Travolta. “I don’t think that’s a possibility, but we’d be thrilled to have him,” he said.
Uber reality producer Mark Burnett is developing a live special aimed at Christmas based on the birth of Christ. Burnett is no stranger to musicals or live television since he produces both The Voice and Survivor. He also helmed the drama series The Bible for History.
Tyler Perry produced and wrote his first Christian-themed musical at the age of 22. Now the Madea creator is doing things on a much bigger scale for Palm Sunday with The Passion. The story is a modern-day interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth as he is betrayed by Judas at the Last Supper. As an original work, this is a bigger risk for Fox than well-known Broadway brands such as Grease. But Perry has proven in the past he can deliver audiences.
As far as live entertainment goes, the Academy Awards are still the most watched awards show. Last year’s Oscars saw the obscure film Birdman win Best Picture while experiencing a 16 per cent drop in viewership from the prior year. But they were still seen by 37 million viewers. This year’s Oscars will have some heat, particularly with Chris Rock hosting during the controversy over not having any visible minority nominees in the major acting awards for the second year in a row.
RIP Best Time Ever?
NBC tried to reinvigorate the live variety show format with the triple threat of Neil Patrick Harris. But it was a clunky and expensive project for the network, which cancelled the show after one season. NBC is coming up with a second project for Harris, a possible retooling of the Best Time Ever concept. Stay tuned.