Saturday, January 16, 2016

High Spirits, Low Ratings: ABC’s Galavant

Joshua Sasse and Timothy Omundson in ABC's Galavant.

If a cast of committed, engaging performers do a funny musical number in the Enchanted Forest, and no one’s watching, does it make a sound? That is more or less the question facing ABC’s oftentimes delightful but unfortunately low-rated musical comedy Galavant, created by writer Dan Fogelman and with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

Galavant is now in the middle of its second season, and no one seems more surprised by that fact than its own creative team, as evidenced by the opening number of the first episode, aptly titled “A New Season.” In keeping with the show’s overall aesthetic, the song’s full of self-referential moments, such as the acknowledgement of the cost to the network of bringing on more guest stars or the writers’ disbelief that they couldn’t even garner an Emmy nomination for Best Song – all taking place within an episode whose full title is “A New Season aka Suck It Cancellation Bear,” a dig at a TV website that had predicted all-but-certain doom for the show after its truncated first season.

Viewers and critics alike have seemed to be at a loss in making sense of Galavant, and, in all fairness, that’s because it’s such a weird show. It’s a musical fairy tale that’s also a parody, although what exactly Fogelman & Co. intend to parody keeps shifting from one moment to the next. One minute the show appears to be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic musicals like Camelot, the next it seems like a send-up of Disney’s brand of fairy tales (Fogelman’s credits include the screenplay for Disney’s Tangled), and then it feints ever so slightly in the direction of Game of Thrones with recurring jokes about how awful life in the medieval era must have been.

If that description makes Galavant sound incoherent, that’s because it’s also effectively a revue, albeit with recurring characters and ongoing storylines. The first season started out with a pilot that was basically an episode-length musical number (one character in the Season 2 premiere comments about how that introductory song’s refrain was so annoyingly catchy) that set up the basic premise: the title character (played by Joshua Sasse) sets out to rescue his love Madalena (Mallory Jansen) from the nefarious King Richard (Timothy Omundson), only to be crushed when he finds out that she prefers the perks of being an evil queen. The rest of the season follows Galavant’s quest for redemption, as he’s recruited by Princess Isabella (Karen David) to bring down Richard so that her family can reclaim the kingdom he’s usurped. That premise allowed the writers to set up a picaresque journey in which Galavant, his squire Sid (Luke Youngblood), and Isabella encountered a series of quirky guest stars, including John Stamos as the dashing knight Sir Jean Hamm and Weird Al Yankovic as a singing monk. Season 2 essentially re-establishes that basic narrative scenario, although it’s shuffled the various characters into new combinations, such as making Galavant and his erstwhile nemesis Richard into traveling companions. This has split the show into three barely-connected storylines, and the resulting fragmentation often leads to a sense that the season isn’t going anywhere in particular.

Karen David and Robert Lindsay in Galavant. (Photo: Liam Daniel/ABC Television)

That’s hardly a problem, though, since the cast members still get plenty of chances to perform their frequently hilarious routines. The performances in Galavant are hardly subtle – there’s simply not enough time in a half-hour episode with multiple musical numbers to do much in the way of character development. Sasse and David are fun as Galavant and Isabella, the romantic leads who turn out to be not quite as perfect as the fairy tale archetypes upon which they’re based; they’re especially good at capturing the moments when their characters show their less-flattering side. In some cases, it feels as though the writers have run out of ideas for supporting characters such as Youngblood’s Sid, or the lowly servants Gwynne and Vincenzo (Sophie McShera, of Downton Abbey fame, and Darren Evans, respectively). Other actors, however, continue to mine their roles for laughs, most notably Timothy Omundson as the ostensibly evil but mostly just obliviously entitled Richard. Most of the cast is capable of handling the writing, which often relies on rapid banter and monologues that quickly veer into odd asides before steering back to the main point, but Omundson has a special knack for delivering his lines in an offhand way while still committing to his over-the-top character. For instance, in one recent episode, a speech aimed at rousing a band of peasants to action seamlessly diverts into an expression for his regret over past indiscretions: "If I were still your king, I would force every one of you to join this man's army. Not because I was a tyrant and a terrible leader who hosted baby fights – which I now realize was weird and not that entertaining, even after the addition of the cobra – but because true love is rare and worth fighting for!"

That line is indicative of Galavant’s particular brand of humor: odd and exaggerated, more grounded than the absurdity of Monty Python but certainly far short of Noel Coward. As I’ve mentioned, it’s also self-conscious, almost to a fault. Many of the jokes center around the old trope of anachronistically displacing modern culture into a medieval setting: Isabella misinterprets Galavant’s feelings for her because of a faulty crystal ball connection, and at one point he and Richard stumble into The Enchanted Forest, which is not an actual patch of woods but rather a gay bar presided over by a character played by Kylie Minogue. At another point in Season 2, Richard returns to his old realm, only to find that his former subjects have declared it a democracy; the citizens then proceed to sing about how their glorious political experiment mostly involves excluding anyone who’s not a straight white Gentile.

Galavant’s off-kilter sense of humor is perhaps yet another element of the show that prevents it from appealing to a wide-enough audience to guarantee it a long-term future, although the experience of programs such as Flight of the Conchords shows that it’s often difficult to sustain a show featuring original music for a sustained period of time, even given sufficiently high ratings. The members of the creative team are no strangers to failure: Fogelman created the ABC sitcom The Neighbors, a show about aliens in suburbia that was initially critically reviled before its reputation, if not its viewership, took a sharp upwards turn. As for Menken and Slater, their successful collaborations on Disney musicals have been tempered by failures such as the Broadway adaptation of the Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith, which, as Steve Vineberg wrote for this website, was sunk by an unnecessarily harsh Ben Brantley review.

There’s been a welcome resurgence of interest in live theatre, specifically musicals, in the last few years, starting with the (qualified) success of NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! and continuing through recent musings by Bob Greenblatt, that network’s current chief, that he’d like to broadcast a version of the monster Broadway hit Hamilton. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always translated to interest in some of the bolder experiments involving TV and musical comedy; in addition to the Galavant’s uncertain future, it seems that the CW’s musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be facing cancellation. However, even if Galavant doesn’t live on past its second season, it’s still been a delight for those attuned to its bizarre wavelength.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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