05.19.09

12 Best and Worst TV Musicals

Fox is previewing its new, musically inspired fall show Glee after American Idol in hopes of hooking fans early. But this isn’t the first show to be inspired by Broadway—here’s a look at some other television shows that have tried (and occasionally failed) to capture the magic of the Great White Way.

The Lullaby of Broadway?

Will Glee, about a hapless band of school-choir misfits, be a quirky hit like Scrubs, or another Cop Rock flop? Creator Ryan Murphy’s Nip/Tuck has had a successful run on FX, but his earlier series, Popular, which walked the same fine line between camp and earnestness that Glee seems to be attempting, lasted only two seasons on the WB. Here’s hoping his latest effort lives up to its name.

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She Slays Demons and High Notes

Once you’ve overcome a doofy title like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and become a bona fide cult hit, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Which is exactly what creator Joss Whedon did in 2001 with his musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling,” featuring a tap-dancing demon (naturally) whose spell causes the Sunnydale residents to sing out their deepest secrets. With original songs penned by Whedon and sung by the cast, the episode was more than a novelty act, with ramifications of the spell carrying over the rest of the season.

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Cop Rock, Um, Didn’t

Musical theater and police procedurals—two great things that don’t go great together. The brainchild of Steven Bochco ( NYPD Blue), Cop Rock featured lawyers, cops, felons, and judges crooning original songs. It ran 11 painful episodes in 1990 before being mercifully euthanized.

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Broadway Divas Rock the Boat

True musical-theater junkies must have needed smelling salts after this 1982 episode of The Love Boat, which brought together four legendary leading ladies—Ethel Merman, Ann Miller, Carol Channing and Della Reese—to perform “I'm the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl.

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Sing Two Bars and Call Me in the Morning

Two hospital shows— Chicago Hope in 1997 and Scrubs a decade later—used aneurysm-fueled hallucinations as excuses for characters to burst into song, but only Scrubs enlisted the help of Tony Award winners (Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez of Broadway musical Avenue Q). The episode fit in well with the show’s quirky tone, as previous episodes featured musical numbers daydreamed by Zach Braff’s character.

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Sing Juris

Ally McBeal had a formal musical episode in its third season, but nearly every episode integrated music in some way—from daydreams to club performances to hilarious, impromptu dance numbers featuring guest stars Robert Downey Jr. and Taye Diggs. Seriously.

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Oz Combines Singing and Shanking

As it turns out, the rough-and-tumble themes of gritty prison drama Oz didn’t sound any more wholesome when put into song in the 2002 episode “Variety.” Broadway vet B.D. Wong did a typically fantastic job singing Tori Amos’ “Leather,” but J.K. Simmons and Lee Tergesen’s rendition of “The Last Duet” was the stuff of nightmares.

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Viva the Trans-Atlantic Debacle

One of the great mysteries of life is how the exact same idea—say, “a musical TV show featuring pop standards and set in a casino”—can be a solid hit in the U.K. ( Blackpool, a popular and lauded 2004 serial) and an unmitigated flop in the U.S. ( Viva Laughlin, which was yanked off the air in 2007 after two episodes). We suspect the escalator dance number is where the American version went horribly, horribly wrong.

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Xena: Warrior Chanteuse

Musical theater is, by nature, somewhat cheesy. Xena: Warrior Princess was, by nature, unquestionably cheesy. So adding musical numbers to two of the episodes—1998’s “The Bitter Suite” and 2000’s “Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire” did nothing to degrade the quality of the show, and even played to its guilty-pleasure strengths.

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7th Level of Hell

Unlike Xena, the equally cheesy 7th Heaven’s 2005 pop-standards-laden musical episode was downright unwatchable. The difference can probably be attributed to the level of earnestness—at least the Xena scribes seemed to know how campy their show was.

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That ’70s Acid Trip

It’s hard to say whether the 2002 musical episode of That ‘70s Show was a hit or a miss. The cast members’ voices were a little too weak for the fantasy musical numbers, but we have to give them props for doing their own singing, and for including the criminally underappreciated Steve Miller Band song “The Joker.”

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High School High

Not technically a television show, sure, but the first two High School Musical movies aired on TV before making the leap to the big screen with No. 3. HSM is a little too cheesy for our post-pubescent tastes, but we have to applaud anything that can make jazz hands cool for a whole new generation.

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Musicals Get Animated (By Someone Other Than Disney)

In its 20 (and counting!) seasons on the air, The Simpsons has tweaked every facet of pop culture, including musical theater. This clip, about a slick salesman trying to sell the town on installing a monorail, should be recognizable to every musical-theater fan as an homage to The Music Man.

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Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast’s Caryn James: Fox’s “Glee” Is the Best New Show

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