Tag Archives: Musical

The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.19.12 PM

The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.
Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Television, Uncategorized

Cultural Catchup Project: “Once More, With Feeling” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Once More, With Feeling”

August 5th, 2011

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

My memory is generally pretty good when it comes to small details about my life, but I truly have no idea what possessed me to watch “Once More, With Feeling” in my dorm room about four or five years ago.

I wasn’t watching it with someone else, and I hadn’t borrowed someone’s DVDs. As far as I can remember, no one suggested that I watch it, and this was well before Dr. Horrible was a thing (although I think my memory wants to tell me that there was some relationship between the two things, if only to make sense of the abstract nature of the experience). Looking back, timeline wise, it’s possible that the Scrubs musical was what pushed me in its direction, but that’s at best an educated guess.

As I’ve discussed throughout this project, there are moments from pivotal episodes that have been floating around in my head from occasional experiences with the series. One was Riley crawling through a tight space in the climax of “Hush,” gleamed from a Buffy marathon my brother was recording, and the other was this random late night viewing of an episode for which I had almost zero context. Given that I was watching the episode exclusively as a musical, my memory is hazy: when I started watching the show in earnest last summer, I remember being convinced that Xander and Cordelia were going to get together because I had seen them in “Once More, With Feeling,” at which point you were quick to point out that my memory was even hazier than I realized.

Watching it this week really did feel like watching it for the first time, even if there were those brief moments of déjà vu. I remembered more about the episode than I thought, but the nature of those memories varied, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the episode’s success. You can’t remember what you’ve never known, and returning to the episode in the context of the sixth season gave me a much greater understanding for why “Once More, With Feeling” holds such an important place in the history of this show.

Continue reading

30 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

Glee – “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”

“The Rocky Horror Glee Show”

October 26th, 2010

The test of an episode so heavily based around a specific musical property is how it is integrated into the series as a whole. While Rocky Horror superfans are likely to judge the episode based on its relationship to the musical, I’m more interested in the musical’s relationship to the characters. I watched the movie for the first time over the weekend, and while the music is obviously the main reasons for this crossover it’s also easy to see how various characters could fit into particular roles. Finn and Rachel are a logical Brad and Janet, Sam might as well be Rocky 2.0, and the other roles all have enough meaning and interest that whoever fits into them could gain a new level of interest as a result (especially if the show is interested in the musical’s more subversive qualities).

At a few points, I think “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” succeeds in this area, albeit with some missteps. By admitting that the musical is inappropriate for this setting (small town Ohio), both through the actual storyline and how a variety of characters respond to the material, the show doesn’t pretend that it is entirely natural for these two properties to come together. In those moments, the episode is fairly grounded, problematizing the staging of the musical in ways which have potential to speak to the show’s characters.

The problem is that the central reason this connection is being made is the part of the show that simply doesn’t work, something that was entirely absent two weeks ago where the show was at its best in a long while. By grounding the musical in Will and Emma’s relationship, and in Sue’s efforts to destroy the Glee club, the small character moments are ultimately complicated and often undermined by the sense that tying this into one of the series’ weakest ongoing storylines takes leaps in logic that limits the potential impact of the musical’s presence in the episode.

Continue reading

27 Comments

Filed under Glee

Off-Site Learnings: Glee’s Impact on Television Development

I was in transit when last week’s episode of the (excellent) Firewall and Iceberg podcast was posted, and during that trip I wrote a piece for Jive TV which discussed what Glee’s impact will be on television development; little did I know that Alan and Dan had discussed the same issue during that episode, which makes my piece a response of sorts to their comments.

It’s ultimately in agreement: Glee’s legacy will not be the renaissance of the high school comedy nor the arrival of the television musical. However, I would argue that there are more essential, rather than definitional, elements of the series which could inspire future development, allowing networks to tap into what makes Glee so successful without necessarily selling iTunes downloads or breaking out into song.

For more on the subject, check out “Has U.S. TV been Forever Changed by Glee?” at Australia’s Jive TV:

However, what remains to be determined is how much Glee has changed the television industry: while the success of a show like Modern Family can be billed the renaissance of the family sitcom, it’s not quite so easy to identify what other networks will attempt to emulate within Glee’s central premise. There isn’t going to be a sudden influx of musicals on television, as Glee’s most definitive quality is too unique on the current television landscape to be copied in such a blatant fashion; that being said, networks will still want to try to capture the elusive “Glee audience” that FOX has built over the past year, and they’re going to try to find a way to do it as soon as possible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Glee

Glee – “Dream On”

“Dream On”

May 18th, 2010

I made a case a few weeks ago that Glee would work better if it wasn’t so concerned about plot or character development: if each individual episode were allowed to serve as a standalone story about high school students overcoming adversity through the powers of song and dance, I think the show would feel less rushed, less burdened by the need to maintain something approaching momentum. By focusing on ongoing character arcs, it means that the show’s whiplash storytelling feels like the show is being pulled in fifteen different directions, and characters who appear only occasionally in the “main” narrative feel objectified when they’re given the “spotlight” on rare occasions.

“Dream On,” I would argue, works in a bubble: if you choose to take an entirely anachronistic view to this series, then there are inspirational moments, some decent jokes, and some strong musical numbers, all of which is well directed by Joss Whedon and bolstered by Neil Patrick Harris’ presence. However, once you start thinking about these characters as something more than archetypes and think about where they’ve been in the past and how they came to be in these situations, you start to realize that something doesn’t add up. We’ve seen these stories before, and in some ways we’ve moved past these stories, and the expectation of character development feels betrayed by the apparent regression.

I want this show to be able to show me growth in its characters, and I want it to work harder at developing ongoing storylines that make sense and which enrich the show’s storytelling, but I feel like they don’t have the execution or the vision to pull that together, which makes me wary of the show’s long term prospects amidst the hype surrounding its more successful (and more popular) elements.

Continue reading

11 Comments

Filed under Glee

Spring Premiere: Glee – “Hell-O”

“Hell-O”

April 13th, 2010

I considering myself an appreciator of Glee, one of the few “deconstruction-focused” critics who has been writing about the show in a dedicated fashion (some weeks, it’s just Todd and I), but I don’t like that being a “fan” has become an all-or-nothing proposal. I can like the show while admitting that it has some pretty considerable flaws, but it seems like FOX’s promotional blitz has very clearly divided those who are chugging the kool-aid and those who are sipping it politely and discussing the sugar to water ratio, and as someone who falls in the latter category I can already sense that this is becoming one of those shows where any sort of indepth, negative review is going to be attacked for “missing the point of the show” and the like from some – but not, of course, all – viewers of the show.

This is unfortunate because I think how Glee tries to accomplish its goals is actually far more interesting than the goals themselves, as the balance between music and dialogue, or comedy and drama, or fantasy and reality all create some very intriguing problems that Ryan Murphy and Co. have to deal with on a weekly basis. That the show isn’t always successful shouldn’t be a surprise considering the volatile elements it chooses to take on each week, and the idea that its can-do spirit or its exuberance can account for its occasional missteps is the sort of romantic notion that only works in the show’s universe, not in ours.

“Hell-O” is a strong season premiere not because of the hype, or because of the musical numbers that the show chooses, but because those musical numbers are very well focused, the introduction of new characters is well-handled, and the thematic parallels are useful enough that the contrivances necessary to create them are forgivable. After a closure-heavy conclusion that wrapped things up too neatly, the show manages to complicate things quite effectively as it prepares for what appears to be a lengthy run – forgive me if I don’t let the show run around the hurdles every week.

Continue reading

7 Comments

Filed under Glee

How I Met Your Mother – “Girls vs. Suits”

“Girls vs. Suits”

January 11th, 2010

I picked up the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother on DVD over the holidays, and I watched a few episodes over the course of the break. I came to realize that there are a number of highlights in the season, but that many of them hinge on a story element that has since that point been entirely wasted. Episodes kept pointing towards Barney coming to terms with his playboy identity in order to confront his feelings with Robin, and those episodes are painful for me: they’re a sign of the storyline that the show cut loose before I felt it should have been cut loose, and before it had been given time to develop into something that could have become a meaningful part of this universe.

If we view “Girls vs. Suits,” scripted by co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas as the show’s 100th episode, as a celebration of what they consider the show’s two most enduring elements, we find that the mythology surrounding the Mother and the audacity surrounding Barney Stinson are the show’s constants. But considering my frustration over Barney’s regression from his relationship with Robin, and considering how the story surrounding the Mother has been dragged out to the point where it has ceased being about Ted and become more about the show itself, this isn’t what my ideal 100th episode of the show would look like.

And yet, I found “Girls vs. Suits” managed to crack my cynical exterior with one of its storylines, although the other (although eventful and charming at points) simultaneously confirmed that it may have to be in desperate need of some reinvention to ensure it can “make it work” in the future.

Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under How I Met Your Mother