|Keith Andes and Barbara Cook in Bloomer Girl (1956)|
In the heyday of live TV (the fifties), weekly and monthly series regularly offered abridged versions of plays, and between 1954 and 1956 one show, Max Liebman Spectaculars (a.k.a. Max Liebman Presents), which aired every fourth Sunday evening, produced ninety-minute adaptations of Broadway musicals as well as variety showcases and a handful of original musicals. (Liebman was better known for producing the inspired Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca sketch comedy, Your Show of Shows, one of the high-water marks of early television.) Surprisingly NBC preserved these musicals on kinescope, and several have surfaced on DVDs from Video Artists International, which has added to its repertory a couple of the early Hallmark Hall of Fame musicals and one from Producer’s Showcase. The result is a treasure trove for musical-theatre aficionados like me – especially since some of these shows have never been picked up by Hollywood (Bloomer Girl, A Connecticut Yankee and Dearest Enemy) and others were seriously altered – plots rewritten, scores decimated – in the movie versions. One Touch of Venus, for instance, reached the big screen with only a handful of the delightful Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash tunes intact; the Victor Herbert operetta Naughty Marietta and the Oscar Strauss import The Chocolate Soldier were retooled as Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles. (You wouldn’t know from the movie of The Chocolate Soldier that it was originally a musicalization – OK, a bowdlerization – of Shaw’s satirical romantic comedy Arms and the Man.) There is a crummy movie musical called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court starring Bing Crosby, but the longer title, which replicates the name of the Mark Twain comic novel, alerts owl-eyed movie buffs that it isn’t based on the hit show by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, which was produced on Broadway in 1927 and revived in 1943, at the very end of their collaboration.
Over the last few weeks I’ve watched ten DVDs from the VAI collection – all of their musicals except for the Sigmund Romberg operetta The Desert Song, because I just couldn’t face the prospect of insipid Nelson Eddy in the male lead. In addition to the ones named above are Lady in the Dark, Kiss Me, Kate, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard and an original, with songs culled from Rimsky-Korsakov, called Marco Polo. They’re not all equally worthy, of course, but for those who care about musicals they’re indispensable: even cut down to an hour and a half (roughly 77 minutes trimmed of commercial breaks), Bloomer Girl or A Connecticut Yankee – which is based on the rewritten 1943 version – is remarkably faithful to the Broadway edition and includes a healthy sample of the songs and dances. (In 1956 Agnes DeMille was asked to recreate the ballets she’d staged a dozen years earlier for Bloomer Girl.)
Drake and Morison are both splendid as the bickering ex-spouses cast as Petruchio and Katharine in Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s backstage musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, and they give you a taste of what this fabulous show must have been like ten years earlier on Broadway. Theyo illuminate the undercurrents of romantic longing and nostalgia in even their most incendiary exchanges, and when Morison’s Lilli Vanessi walks out on Drake’s Fred Graham before the finale, she makes her mixed emotions so clear that we understand – as many contemporary Lillis fail to – exactly why she returns. Kiss Me, Kate is hands down my favorite of these ten TV musicals, but of course it’s also the best of the shows that generated them.
Between 1925 and 1927, the year of A Connecticut Yankee, Rodgers and Hart wrote the scores for seven shows; those were sparkling days for Broadway, and the young songwriting team was in high demand. VAI has also put out a genuine rarity, a TV adaptation of their first book show, Dearest Enemy, set during the American Revolution and co-starring a gleeful Cyril Ritchard (who had just garnered the most glowing reviews of his career for playing Captain Hook) as a British general. The next time I’m stuck reviewing a production of 1776, I’ll close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to “Here in My Arms” from Dearest Enemy. The other musical here with a historic setting is Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s Bloomer Girl, set in a sleepy northern town before and during the War. A very young Barbara Cook stars. The year was 1956, when she got her first starring role on Broadway, in Candide; the following year she created the part of Marian the librarian in The Music Man and returned to TV (Hallmark Hall of Fame this time) to appear opposite Drake as Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard.
Broadway-to-TV musicals returned briefly in the sixties; I remember seeing Kismet, Carousel, Brigadoon and another Kiss Me, Kate when I was a teenager. Then they vanished, except for the occasional transcription of a live stage show on PBS and a few concert productions. For those who are about the history of the American musical, the fact that these “specials” from the mid-fifties have been unearthed is almost too good to be true, and that includes the second-rate ones. If you live within driving distance of New York you can enjoy the Encores! revivals, and San Francisco audiences are fortunate enough to have 42nd Street Moon; lovers of classical musicals in New England can make regular forays to the Goodspeed Opera House. Not everyone is so lucky. Besides, these trimmed adaptations were telecast much closer to their sources and feature performers who participated in the golden age of the musical – like Celeste Holm, the original star of Bloomer Girl, who plays Phoebe in The Yeomen of the Guard. As a kid I used to pore over the stills in Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History of Television and bemoan the fact that I was too young to see most of these musicals when they were aired. VAI has resurrected a small but vital part of the American pop-cultural past I’d assumed were gone forever.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.