Monday, October 29, 2007

Viva Lost Laughlin

VIVA LAUGHLIN is among the first casualties of the new television season. And with its demise comes the inevitable: “Musicals can’t work on television.”

Which is a rather irrelevant thing to say, since – and please listen closely here – VIVA LAUGHLIN was NOT a musical.

Sure the characters sang and danced to no known source of music – generally a sign that one is in a musical. But VIVA has an important distinction – one that contributed greatly to the show’s failure.

First allow me to make a distinction between background music (or “scoring”) and a musical song.

Songs used for background have long added greatly to a scene, even when brought to the foreground – whether carrying the audience through a forensic montage in C.S.I., or setting the proper reactive mood as the perp is taken away in COLD CASE.

Such songs are intended to give color to a scene, to enhance the audience’s experience.

In a musical, however, the song is the foreground. The rule of thumb is this: when words are no longer enough to express the needs of the character, they break out into song.

For musicals, then, the song isn’t about coloring a scene, rather the music IS the scene.

Which brings us back to VIVA. In this show, when a character breaks out into music, a song is played (say, Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas”), and the actor sings along to the song.

Note, the actor isn’t singing the song, they are singing along to a recording.

Hugh Jackman isn’t telling us how the character feels by interpreting an Elvis song; rather Hugh Jackman is singing along to Elvis telling us how Elvis feels, which happens to coincide somewhat with Hugh’s character.

This is exactly how C.S.I. uses music, Elvis singing along as the action plays out. The difference being, of course, that Catherine Willow doesn’t tend to sing and dance along.

VIVA used background pretending it was foreground, without providing any foreground.

If this was a musical, we wouldn’t be hearing Elvis’ interpretation with Hugh getting in the way; we would be hearing Hugh’s interpretation. (I was dying to hear Hugh. Alas.)

Want to see how the musical form can work on television? Feel free to go back to the musical episodes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (it worked) or even the musical episode of SCRUBS (it mostly worked).

Better yet, catch the “Dummy” episode of PUSHING DAISIES, and watch Kristin Chenoweth bring down the house with “Hopelessly Devoted” – to an orchestra only she (and the audience) could hear.

Seriously; you can see it online; the song is around minute 18. Play through so you don’t miss the dance with the floor scrubber.

All Kristin; not a peep from Olivia Newton John. And thus, all DAISIES, not just an echo of GREASE.

A musical moment done right.

So VIVA messed up the whole notion of what a musical is, and got cancelled for it.

Well, to be fair it also had lousy writing, bad dialogue, mediocre acting and a “who cares?” story line.

But messing up the music didn’t help.

Just my thoughts,


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