Film & Television

Fall Television:
It’s the Most Musical Time of the Year

At any given time, I can probably count on one hand (if not one finger) how many TV shows my daughter, a recent college grad, and I watch together. So, earlier this summer, we were both disappointed that NBC did not renew Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist after its second season. 

Zoey was a somewhat silly show (made possible by precursors like High School Musical, Glee, and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) about a young programmer who happens to be getting an MRI when an earthquake causes the machine to short-circuit and gifts (or curses) her with the ability to hear the “heart songs” of the people around her. These inner soundtracks come complete with singing, dancing, and full-blown musical numbers, and put our heroine, the titular Zoey, in the often-awkward position of being the only person who can help solve the problems of those around her.

What we loved about it was that once you got past the almost science fiction (heavy on the fiction) premise, the sheer talent onscreen was … well … “extraordinary.” Golden Globe nominee Jane Levy and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, along with series regulars Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, and John Clarence Stewart, were joined by Tony winner guests Bernadette Peters and Renée Elise Goldsberry. By and large (with only a couple of exceptions), the singing was Broadway caliber, and the group numbers incorporated innovative post-modern choreography with pedestrian movement in a sophisticated way rarely seen on TV.

When the cast wasn’t singing and dancing, the series also focused on some actual issues: being one of very few women at a high-profile tech company; dealing with the decline and death of a parent; and falling in and out of love with coworkers. My daughter typically watched each episode with her college roommate first, then rewatched it with me. (I was just happy to be somewhere in the equation.)

Although we haven’t made any plans yet, there may be several opportunities for us to enjoy some musical television together this fall.

The Tony-winning Come From Away was filmed live on Broadway last May to an invited audience of 9/11 survivors and first-responders, and premiered on Apple TV+ last week to commemorate 9/11’s twentieth anniversary. Although the terrorist attacks are very much the impetus for the show’s story, the heart of it is human generosity and kindness. As events unfolded on the morning of September 11, 2001, U.S. airspace was closed, and all planes were ordered to land at the nearest airport. This left 7,000 international passengers (and 19 animals) stranded in Gander, a small town in Newfoundland. The locals, at first overwhelmed, opened their homes to the travelers, and the lives of hosts and guests were forever changed.

In addition to a Tony, the Broadway production won a Drama Desk Award and multiple Outer Critics Circle Awards. The West End production two years later won several Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. Although shuttered (like all of Broadway) because of Covid-19, Come From Away will resume live performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on September 21.

Diana: The Musical, also a filmed version of a live performance, will premiere on Netflix October 1. The cast includes Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, and Judy Kaye. Jeanna DeWaal, whose stage credits include Kinky Boots, American Idiot, Finding Neverland, and Waitress, stars as Princess Diana.

De Waal, who is British and was just a child when the real Diana was killed in a 1997 Paris car crash, is thoughtful about portraying the “People’s Princess.” As she explained to The Daily Beast, “The challenge has been to not make her too naïve, and how to portray her naivety and innocence to be strengths. She was always going to become the Diana she became. She just didn’t know about that ‘Diana’ yet. You don’t want the lead of your musical to have everything done to them. It’s easy to dramatize ‘male stories’ about someone who conquers a country, or who takes over an army because they are direct and easy to tell. But sensitivity and sadness is harder to dramatize. Once she is on that track she becomes the ‘Diana’ we remember. But the musical asks, how did she and Charles meet, how did he choose her, what was that spark?”

In November, Netflix will also premiere tick, tick .. BOOM!, the autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, the late creator of Rent. The new film adaptation marks the directorial debut of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

tick, tick … BOOM! tells the story of talented but starving musical theater artist Jon, who, on his thirtieth birthday, finds himself at a crossroads in his career and relationships. The film stars Andrew Garfield, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexandra Shipp, and Judith Light. And, director Miranda has strong emotional ties to the life and work of Larson. “I was a kid who wanted to be a filmmaker all my life,” Miranda told Page 6 when the project was announced. “Rent was the first musical I saw that felt truly contemporary … I was like, ‘Oh, this takes place in New York, downtown.’ So, I started writing musicals because that show gave me permission to write musicals.”

Hudgens — who in addition to starring in High School Musicals 1, 2, and 3, played the title role in Broadway’s 2015 revival of Gigienthused to Collider, “Lin being the shining light that he is brought such an energy of joy and playfulness and just excitement, because he loves Jonathan Larson and he loves tick, tick … BOOM! and he’s been dreaming about this as long as he can remember. So, the fact that he got to do it, that radiates. That’s a whole other energy. And for us to be there with him — we all have our own connections I think with Jonathan Larson, and it just felt like there were moments of magic, and he’s a big reason why that was.”

Broadway is slowly, cautiously reopening. But, thanks to subscription streaming services, you can watch some of the highlights of “the great white way” from the safety and comfort of your couch.

But my daughter and I do have one other musical to look forward to after all these. Zoey and company have received a bit of a reprieve. Last week, Roku announced, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is the kind of show that doesn’t just entertain people, it speaks to them. The show has a healing power about it, which is brought to life by the incredibly talented cast through music and dance. That connection with the audience is what makes bringing a holiday-themed film like Zoey to life with the original cast so special. We are absolutely thrilled to call Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas our first Roku Original film.”

You know what? We’re thrilled too.

Come From Away is available to watch now on Apple TV+.

 Diana will be available October 1 on Netflix.

tick, tick … BOOM! will premiere in November.

And Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to stream on Hulu. The holiday special will air on Roku.

 

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