Will 'Nashville' take the television musical into new country?
While grown-up viewers revel in its subversive humour and offbeat characterisation, teens lap up the soundtrack albums and live shows, built around heavily sweetened cover versions.
Smash, billed initially as “the adult Glee” and featuring Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, isn’t quite so successful. An ambitious metamusical, it follows a bunch of not-particularly-likeable writers, producers and performers as they attempt to stage a show-within-a-show called Bombshell about the life Marilyn Monroe.
Unlike Glee, many of Smash’s musical numbers are originals written for the programme. Sadly, its plot and characterisation are not half so original and audiences are deserting it like a sinking HMS Pinafore.
Much more artistically successful is Treme, the post-Katrina New Orleans drama from The Wire writer David Simon. It features real and fictional jazz musicians and intertwines musical jams with its loosely-structured socially-conscious plots. Musical contributors have included John Boutté, Kermit Ruffins, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello and Dr John.
Keeping it country
The latest addition to this musical canon is Nashville, a soapy drama written by Thelma and Louise writer Callie Khouri and co-produced by documentary-maker RJ Cutler. The show focuses on the waning fortunes of country music star Rayna Jaymes (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton) and the rise of another, Juliette Barnes (Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere).
The script calls on the characters to perform, write, rehearse and record their music, much of it shot on location in famous venues such as the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluebird Cafe. T-Bone Burnett, Khouri’s husband, is the executive music producer and established songwriters such as Elvis Costello (him again), Lucinda Williams and John Paul White (from the band The Civil Wars) write the songs.
Having seen two episodes, I really like Nashville. It features naturalistic acting and dialogue, a swathe of melodramatic plots (musical, political and romantic), and in the opening episodes at least two soon-to-be classic songs (both co-written by John Paul White).
Like many more conventional dramas, the music is used as emotional punctuation, but here it isn’t pushed into a regressive soundtrack. Instead, it merges organically with the characters’ musical lives.
So it appears the television musical has arrived. However, it’s striking how far from the stage and screen musical tradition the newer genre strays. In none of the newer programmes do characters burst into song in the street, woo a loved-one with a spontaneous melody, or discover that passing sailors know all of their dance moves.
Indeed, all the recent examples of television musicality find some plot-driven reason for singing (magic, drugs, music industry shenanigans, general campness) to assuage more musical-phobic viewers.
There are many unlikely and inexplicable things contemporary television audiences can accept – laugh tracks, sweeping background music, improbable montages, Ryan Seacrest, the news – but dramatic personae breaking into song as a hidden string section swells?
This is a bridge too far (musical pun intended).
Nashville starts on More 4 on Thursday, February 7th