Monday, September 5, 2016

Broadway to the Small Screen: Early TV Musicals

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.)

The revelations in this collection are Alfred Drake and Eddie Albert. Drake was the most important leading man in musicals in the forties and fifties: he starred in the Broadway productions of Oklahoma!, Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet. But he’s been virtually forgotten, because when these properties were turned over to Hollywood Drake’s roles passed on to Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel. Drake wasn’t only a magnificent baritone; he was a superb actor whose theatrical cred was confirmed when Richard Burton chose him to play Claudius to his Hamlet under John Gielgud’s direction. His gifts are apparent if you listen to the original cast albums of his shows – especially the short-lived 1961 Kean, in which he portrayed the legendary nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean – as well as a studio recording Decca released of Jerome Kern’s Roberta. But thanks to VAI we can now see full-scale Drake performances (or nearly) in Naughty Marietta, Marco Polo, The Yeomen of the Guard and Kiss Me, Kate, where he co-stars with Patricia Morison, whom he partnered in the Broadway production ten years earlier (1948). He’s really the only reason to watch Marietta, unless you have more patience for Victor Herbert operettas than I do. His leading lady is the Met opera soprano Patrice Munsel, a frequent presence on The Bell Telephone Hour with a gnomish face that TV close-ups don’t favor and a tiresome tendency to descend to cutesiness. He’s the best reason to watch Marco Polo, which plays more like a pageant than a musical play. His leading lady is Doretta Morrow, a delicate, exotic beauty with a sweet, surprisingly robust soprano whose theatrical career was impressive – she played the ingénues in the original casts of Where’s Charley?, The King and I and (opposite Drake) Kismet – but short-lived. (She retired at thirty-three and died of cancer eight years later.) And he’s vivid and finally affecting as Jack Point in Yeomen – the only protagonist G&S ever gave a sorrowful ending.

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.

Eddie Albert tends to be remembered today, if at all, for the TV comedy Green Acres or perhaps for his Oscar-nominated performance as Cybill Shepherd’s dad in The Heartbreak Kid. But he was a musical-comedy guy as well as a fine character actor. He starred in Irving Berlin’s Miss Liberty in 1949 – now there’s a neglected musical someone should revive! – and there are two charming Albert performances from the Max Liebman days, in The Chocolate Soldier and A Connecticut Yankee. His leading lady in the first is Risë Stevens, a rather horsy soprano whose coloratura trilling has an inescapable wholesomeness, but Albert brings good humor and an easygoing amorousness to the role of the Swiss mercenary soldier who hides in her boudoir to escape being shot by her country’s cavalry. The score isn’t memorable, but he gets to croon the best of the tunes, “A Quiet Voice,” as he waltzes Stevens around the floor. A Connecticut Yankee provides him with much better material. This Rodgers and Hart show was their first big hit, and the TV version, with Janet Leigh as both the women Albert’s Hank loves (one in modern America, one in his dream of King Arthur’s court) and Boris Karloff as Arthur, makes it clear why audiences adored it.

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.

The Encores! series at City Center has produced both A Connecticut Yankee and Bloomer Girl; I think that these live TV versions, in black and white (they were telecast in color but the kinescopes were in black and white) with very simple, stylized sets, are lighter and livelier. The Kurt Weill entries aren’t as much fun. One Touch of Venus does reproduce much of the S.J. Perelman book and it has the irresistible George Gaynes in the role of Whitelaw Savory, who sings the enchanting ballad “Westwind.” But Blair, as the goddess Venus transported to mid-twentieth-century Manhattan, is glaringly miscast in the role Mary Martin played on stage in 1943, though she tries hard – exhaustingly hard. In Lady in the Dark Ann Sothern is even more determined – and almost as misguided – as Liza Elliott, the women’s magazine editor whose neurosis sends her to a shrink. The musical has a pedigree – Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin contributed book and lyrics respectively – and it’s possible that the ineffable Gertrude Lawrence somehow made it work on stage in 1941. But the script is dreadful, and the gimmick of having Liza’s dreams reproduced as musical numbers is a disaster. This was the first musical about psychoanalysis, and Broadway had to wait a quarter of a century for the next one (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever).

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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. "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."

    I did exactly the same thing! And I still have my copy of that book!

  2. My mother's cousin, Trudy DeLuz, was a chorus girl singer who was in the original cast of Miss Liberty (and Call Me Madam and...Magdalena!). I know she would disagree with you that Miss LIberty should be revived. I grew up listening to many a tale of Broadway's Golden Age. She hated being in a flop that the audience didn't enjoy and give love back over the footlights. I think a small revival was attempted by Blue Moon Theater Company in San Francisco a few years ago.