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The reality TV machine has left no stone unturned, so it was hardly a surprise when it finally decided to team up with Broadway. What was a bit surprising was that the partnership came in the form of a nationally televised casting call known as Grease - You're the One That I Want. Sure, American Idol-style singing competitions are popular, but what Broadway producer would want to take the chance of putting a multi-million dollar Broadway production on the shoulders of a couple of unknown actors chosen by TV viewers? British producer David Ian, that's who.
Ian had already taken the gamble with the BBC show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, which he and co-creator Andrew Lloyd Webber used to cast a popular London revival of The Sound of Music. What Ian discovered was that a reality TV show can act as a gigantic TV advertisement worth its weight in gold. So when Grease fans carped that Max Crumm wasn't right for the role of Danny, and when the Broadway critics panned the New York production, none of that mattered. Why? Because that television exposure led to several millions of dollars worth of advance ticket sales for Ian's Grease revival. Even though ratings for Grease - You're the One That I Want were considered rather poor at an average of eight million viewers per night, that's still a tremendous audience in Broadway terms (a Broadway show would have to run about 10 years at full capacity before it could claim eight million people had bought tickets). What's more, the people buying those tickets weren't Broadway insiders or regular Broadway theatergoers -- they were a whole new untapped market of TV watchers dying for a chance to see the two contestants that they'd been rooting for, live and in person on Broadway.
The Next Step For Broadway on TV
Of course, what makes a hit on Broadway does not necessarily make a hit for a TV network. NBC got such disappointing ratings for Grease - You're the One That I Want that it almost looked as though reality TV and Broadway might have to part ways. That is, until the producers of the Broadway musical Legally Blonde made a deal with MTV to create a reality TV show to help them cast a replacement actress to play lead character Elle Woods. The alliance makes sense -- Legally Blonde already has a relationship with MTV, which broadcast a performance of the Broadway show in late 2007.
But now a new question arises: Will Broadway be able to maintain its level of quality if it makes a habit of casting shows via reality TV? The role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde is far more demanding than Sandy in Grease. It requires serious stamina (she's onstage for most of the musical's two and a half hours), in addition to singing, dancing, and acting abilities. It's also a role that demands a kind of star quality and energy that isn't necessarily the same as what works on television. On the positive side, since there is nothing that reality TV audiences love more than an underdog, TV shows like this offer a chance for undiscovered talents to be identified. Furthermore, one could argue that it would be better for a Broadway show like Legally Blonde, which has been struggling to fill seats, to cast a less-than-perfect lead who would nonetheless create a surge in ticket sales rather than to simply close the show because they couldn't sell enough tickets.
Broadway's Reaction To Reality Television
The intersection of Broadway and reality TV has clearly been a success from the financial standpoint, making many people who are in the business of Broadway open to considering future endeavors. The rest of the community has not been as enthusiastic, though. Devoted Broadway fans and frequent Broadway theatergoers have virtually ignored Grease (although it should be noted that much of the indifference is due to boredom with the show itself, which already had a long-running Broadway revival in the '90s). Many Broadway insiders also disdain reality TV as a whole and are therefore reluctant to see the two worlds colliding. There is also the issue of the industry's general aversion to change, which could make everyone from marketers to directors slow to accept reality TV's role in Broadway production.
Reality TV on Broadway: The Good News and the Bad News
Reality television has the ability to bring new audiences to Broadway, which is a great thing. And a percentage of these Broadway newbies, once they've had the pleasure of seeing one show, are likely to come back and buy tickets for more shows. After decades of losing popularity to cinema, video, television, and even computer games, the Broadway theater could use a reliable means of generating public interest. And that's exactly what shows like Grease - You're the One That I Want do.
But unlike those other forms of entertainment, Broadway is location-specific. All the advertising in the world can't help people on the other side of the country make regular visits to New York, so ultimately there is a limit to what reality TV can do for Broadway. To bring back the question of diminishing quality, there is also the danger that Broadway producers will only want to feature well-known properties like Grease on TV. This means that Broadway could be assaulted with another spate of revivals rather than generating the kind of fresh, innovative work needed to make the form thrive artistically.
So far the Broadway reality shows have focused on casting. If this trend continues, it raises the question of what it means for professional Broadway actors, who may find themselves having to compete regularly on TV shows just to be considered for roles. Being a New York theater actor is a tough job that often entails balancing full-time work to pay the rent while squeezing in singing/dancing/acting classes and as many auditions as possible. To take part in these reality TV shows, actors are asked to be available for long stretches of time that could make it very difficult for them to maintain the balance of their regular lives. Reality TV is cheap for television producers and it's a fantastic way for Broadway producers to sell tickets, but what toll might it take on the talent?
The Future of Broadway and Reality Television
What could be next for Broadway and reality TV? Maybe a beloved Broadway diva like Patti Lupone will get her own trashy reality show? Perhaps a bunch of catty chorus boys will try to live Real World-style in a posh Manhattan apartment? Survivor: 42nd Street? Or will we just get more Broadway shows being cast by the reality TV method? The answer might depend on how this new Legally Blonde reality show goes. The Broadway community will be watching. They may be watching grudgingly, but they will be watching.