In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Musicals on Television

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • TV and Media Theory Particularly Applicable to TV Musicals
  • Videos and Video Archives
  • Research Archives

Cinema and Media Studies Musicals on Television
Kelly Kessler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0343


American musical theater and film have been crossing over into television since the mid-20th century. In the early days of American television, the proximity of Broadway and the headquarters of the television industry made a union between the popular musical form and the new living room medium a no-brainer. By 1944 the DuMont network had premiered the first musical made specifically for US television, The Boys from Boise, and within the next decade and a half, dozens of new and adapted musicals had made their way to the small screen and into homes across the country. In addition to musicals in their entirety, television embraced popular songs of the stage via variety series and specials. The works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had already transcended the stage and screen, finding themselves on the Billboard charts and on people’s phonographs. Such ubiquity quickly translated to television, with Broadway singers and popular crooners alike performing across series. Over the next decades, full-length musical plays waned on television, but variety series and specials featuring the likes of Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli, and Bing Crosby flooded the airways. Shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Muppet Show featured and parodied decades of musical theater and film, providing a musical education to unwitting viewers. By the eighties, the rise of cable television had opened up new spaces for high and low culture, with musical theater peppering the new (and quickly floundering) cultural cable channels and popular dance musicals selling themselves via music video on the phenomenally successful new youth-oriented channel MTV. Over the decades, US television would continue to dabble in the musical in the form of musical series, one-off musical episodes, a resurgence of live-musical broadcasts, and new Internet-based and streaming platforms that forced viewers to reconsider just what constituted television and breathed new life into the cross-platform musical television experience. Although almost wholly focusing on the musical’s foray into TV within a US context, this article also touches briefly on global settings, including musical theater reality TV in Canada, gender and musical television in Israel, and the musical dramas of the United Kingdom.

General Overviews

Kessler 2020 provides the most sweeping overview of the musical on US television available, chronicling elements of over seventy years of the small screen as it crisscrosses between television, film, Vegas, and Broadway. The book covers the musical on TV through an array of lenses: Broadway, divas, Vegas transfers, cable television, post–network television, social media campaigns, etc. Lodge 2017 and Lodge 2013 provide varying lengths of overview, incredibly useful for undergraduates and to provide a general grounding in the topic.

  • Kessler, Kelly. Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190674014.001.0001

    This seventy-year look at the musical’s role on American TV explores the shifting interplay between locales (New York, Vegas, and Hollywood), industries (television, film, Broadway, and Vegas), and genres (musical, variety specials and series, and serial and episodic comedy and drama) and how such shifts help to explain the musical’s role on television during a given period. The book provides both a broad overview and specific case studies.

  • Lodge, Mary Jo. “Television Musical.“ In The Grove Dictionary of American Music. 2d ed. Edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    This is a quick stroll through the various incarnations the musical took on television, focusing primarily on US and UK content. The entry would provide a solid intro for undergraduate students studying the topic.

  • Lodge, Mary Jo. “Big Dreams on the Small Screen: The Television Musical.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. 3d ed. Edited by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, 423–437. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    Using a narrow definition for the television musical, Lodge takes a look at the form, identifying its roots in the late mid-1940s and early 1950s, addressing the rather fallow period post-1960s and an uptick in the 1980s and 1990s with short-lived series like Cop Rock and Hull High, and then finally directing readers to the rise of successful one-off musical episodes and popular musical series like Empire, Smash, and Glee.

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