Brow Beat

Rise Brings the TV Musical Full Circle

From I Love Lucy to Glee, TV shows have wrestled with how to put music in their musicals.

A photo collage featuring Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Empire, Rise, and The Partridge Family.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fox Broadcasting, Greg Gayne/The CW, NBCUniversal Media LLC, and Screen Gems Television.

In the pilot episode of NBC’s new musical drama Rise, a football star stands up at a pep rally and freestyles a rap. Two tween girls bop along to the Hamilton cast recording, and later, their father jokingly quotes the show. The closest we see to a traditional musical number is the rough messiness of rehearsing in the high school drama club. It’s true to the way that teenagers today experience music and musicals, but it’s a far cry from Ricky Ricardo warbling at his nightclub or Rachel Berry belting out a showstopper. That, in many ways, is what makes Rise, which debuts on NBC next week, the natural next step in the genre of musical television—a medium that has lagged behind musicals’ other iterations in terms of structural and contextual creativity.

I Love Lucy integrated Ricky Ricardo’s nightclub acts in the 1950s; sitcoms such as The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, and The Monkees found ways to get their casts singing and dancing (regardless of plot relevance) in the 1960s and ’70s. (The ensuing decades were darker times: The less said about legendary flops Cop Rock and Viva Laughlin, the better.) But in 2009, Glee burst onto the scene as a dark, satire-edged comedy that balanced its embrace of the corniness of the musical genre and a heartfelt, empathetic treatment of its teen protagonists.

In traditional musical theater, the implicit understanding between audiences and performers is that the characters are not aware that they’re singing; it’s just how they express themselves. It’s a conceit that works well on stage but can translate awkwardly to more realistic on-screen musicals. Glee got around that discomfort by finding ways to make its characters’ in-universe songs reflect their inner realities as well, a technique that Rise borrows but adjusts: Rather than just the lyrics paralleling its characters’ lives, the very act of singing functions for them as a path to self-expression and discovery.

Innovation, inexorably, leads to oversaturation and, eventually, a lack of the self-awareness that allows creativity in the first place. In the case of Glee, the show infamously spiraled until it became a near parody of its former self, but its success became a goal for other series to aspire to. Rise is the latest attempt to recapture the magic of Glee, but it’s certainly not the first.

When NBC debuted Smash in 2012, it was sold as a Glee for grown-ups: a musical TV series about a musical, allowing the best of both worlds as the diegetic songs were also integrated songs for the show within the show. Instead of teenagers mix and matching their romantic entanglements and coming of age, these characters were adults and industry professionals already, lending a sheen to even the rehearsal-room numbers. But much like Glee, Smash’s embrace of heightened reality would prove to be its own downfall. Despite a top-notch score by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—still found in cabarets and musical theater programs everywhere, not to mention episodes of Girls—the story got bogged down in its own soapiness and niche appeal, and the show went from a must-watch to a hate-watch.

In an attempt to broaden the genre’s appeal, ABC’s Nashville and Fox’s Empire found success—phenomenal, in the latter’s case—by shifting to the mold of prime-time soaps. But their musical elements were secondary and always diegetic, and they were both eventually overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their melodrama.

Galavant and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tried a different tack by taking a more satirical approach.
Both functioned like traditional book musicals, with original songs fully integrated rather than being explicitly performed. To balance their impeccably classic structures, both gleefully skewered the very genre they adhered to. But the cleverly constructed layers of in-jokes also made them niche propositions—and desperately low-rated. Broadway musicals were hitting a new creative peak with shows such as Hamilton (which shares a producer, Jeffrey Seller, with Rise), Dear Evan Hansen, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, and the film musical was making a box-office resurgence with La La Land and The Greatest Showman, but a new hit TV musical seemed impossible.

Although it is arguably the least like a traditional musical of the genre so far, Rise’s music feels like an organic part of its universe. It avoids the unnatural feel of a classically integrated musical by juxtaposing its musical segments—mostly from the musical the students are performing, the controversial and modern Spring Awakening—with moments from the rest of the characters’ lives that map onto their emotions: tentative romance, repressed longing, parental pressures. This structure feels true to how many people, especially young people, experience music and musicals, answering the question of how a TV show can be a musical and still feel natural and realistic, even gritty. Film musicals of recent years have leaned in to the classic, integrated structure, but that’s a heightened reality that can be tricky to balance when you ask viewers to connect with characters on a weekly basis. By showing how characters connect with music, rather than just using the music to connect with the characters, Rise flips traditional structure on its head and makes it more personal.

In an age where the most popular musical theater hits come from younger writers—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, to name some of the most recognizable—Rise brings the TV musical full circle by returning the focus to young people who connect with music in such a raw, unvarnished way. The inevitable temptation of a musical TV series is to increase production values, even if that kind of glossy sheen doesn’t fit the overall story. Rise, however, leans into the messy glory of teenagers and music and theater. Music is just one part of the story, but music is also the backbone of the moments where the young characters feel—and are—the most powerful. Musicals have always been about giving a voice to those who need their voices amplified. With Rise, the TV musical gives the reins back to the young, eager voices who—if you’ll pardon the reference—are young, scrappy, and hungry, and they’re not throwing away their shot.