Monday, August 19, 2013

THE TELEVISION MUSICAL

I remember the all-American excitement attendant upon the telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on CBS in 1957. The cast album came out a week before the show was to air, and, as with such earlier Columbia recordings as Kiss Me, Kate,  South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, families risked losing membership in the middle class if they didn't secure a copy. The very small Pennsylvania town we lived in was culturally modest, and my friends' parents not only passed on the disc but possibly didn't even see the show itself.
 
(My mother thought them riffraff because they ran the radio all day, tuned to a religious station that interspersed Bible panels and spiritual programs with country music. So I grew up thinking that Pentecostals were somehow connected to the Grand Ole Opry.)
 
In the precincts that maintained a sound relationship with the higher midcult, however, a new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein with Julie Andrews was not only irresistible but prestigious. Call it Identification Leisure, a way of explaining who you were, like a New Yorker subscription or a complete set of bitters for the bar, from Orange to Old Fashioned Aromatic.
 
Cinderella 's gestation lay partly in capitalist competition, for CBS was trying to outdo NBC's smash presentations of Mary Martin's Peter Pan, in 1955 and 1956. But note a strategic difference: while both shows reveled in the boldface names of Big Broadway--Martin and Andrews, along with the Hook of Cyril Ritchard; Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sir James M. Barrie; and Jerome Robbins, Peter Pan's director--Cinderella was a TV original, conceived for the kind of space the home screen was most comfortable in: small. The show looked all crammed into itself, whereas Peter Pan was roomier, working in geography comparable to the stage of the Winter Garden. And it was filled with the intricate foolery that a High Maestro like Robbins would invent for it. Thus, in the building of a tiny house during "Wendy," Martin supplied a door simply by painting one on, and the children then merrily paraded out through it...and of course the doorknob had been painted on the wrong side. It's one of those charming touches that routinely decorated the best musicals back then; Cinderella lacks them. But then, its director, Ralph Nelson, was  a stager of not Broadway musicals but videos, and because TV was live, the preferred approach called for as few props and tricks as possible. Simplicity, economy, clarity. Props and tricks are like trained dogs: they work great except when they don't.

We seldom get musicals on TV today, but in the 1950s they were core curriculum. There were adaptations of old shows from Naughty Marietta through Panama Hattie to High Button Shoes, but  the networks presented new compositions as well, usually based on something more or less familiar--Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Women, A Bell For Adano, The Canterville Ghost, Androcles and the Lion. Broadwayites did a lot of the writing. A Bell For Adano  offered songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, The Canterville Ghost tapped Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in their heyday after She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof, and Androcles and the Lion boasted more music by Richard Rodgers. This was when he was writing his own lyrics, in that era after Oscar Hammerstein's death and before Rodgers voyaged into the world of unattached lyricists like the Flying Dutchman, seeking a redemption that he never quite won. (See the post on the BMI Workshop, below, for more on this.)

While putting together the bibliographical essay for my new history of the musical, Anything Goes, I suddenly noticed that while historians now regard Hollywood musicals as not a gloss on but closely linked to the stage form, they never discuss the comparable TV shows.

One reason is that, till recently, almost none of them was readily available. Still, it seems bizarre to expand chronicle to cover, say, a purely cinematic creation such as Singin' in the Rain while ignoring the Aladdin with which CBS succeeded Cinderella, commissioning its score from Cole Porter. This is not even to mention the Kiss Me, Kate and Wonderful Town with their original stars, events that gave the nation a chance to sample Broadway performing style at first hand.

The casting of these TV shows can be fascinating. NBC's Meet Me in St. Louis, drawn from the MGM adaptation and a two-hour special in 1959, used a movie cast, with Jane Powell and Tab Hunter (who got top billing) in the romance, Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy as the parents, Ed Wynn as Grandpa, and, lo, Jeanne Crain, formerly a bigger star than any of them, as the older sister. (Tootie was Patty Duke, half a year before she got a hit play, then her own TV show and a cult movie classic, for which she has continually berated the rest of us for not feeling her pain.) Ruggles of Red Gap, with a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, drew on opposing show-biz mediums, with the Shakespearean Brit Michael Redgrave in the title role; the Hollywood Brit Peter Lawford; Imogene Coca, known then for her work on TV with Sid Caesar; David Wayne, who straddled Broadway and Hollywood; and Jane Powell again, along with Joan Holloway, Gwen Verdon's replacement in Can-Can, to introduce a New Dance Sensation, the "Kickapoo Kick." (One lyric runs, "People do it when they want to be gay.") Sometimes casting simply exploits a TV attraction. Feathertop, a spooky piece with a score by Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin, starred Hugh O'Brian, who was going freelance after six years playing the lead in Wyatt Earp. Here he was opposite Jane Powell, the Laura Osnes of TV musicals: she was in everything. Feathertop was taken from one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of the occult; O'Brian played a scarecrow brought to life. Amusingly, the show, which aired a week before Halloween, was sponsored by the Mars Candy Company.

The most garish casting of all has to be Mickey Rooney in Pinocchio. Somehow the sight of Rooney clacking and freaking as a human puppet strikes terror in the heart yet has a peculiar logic all its own. Call it heterosexual camp. Rooney's support was quite a miscellany: Fran Allison (of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie) as the fairy, Walter Slezak as Gepetto, Sondra Lee as Slezak's cat, and Stubby Kaye as the Town Crier, with the best number, "Happy News" (because "the circus is coming to town!"). The villains were former D'Oyly Carte patter star Martyn Green and Jerry Colonna, who was famous for holding high notes longer than anyone else on the planet. There's something batty about all these second-division people spanning the performing arts from puppet shows to Gilbert and Sullivan, and the whole package is tied up by the participation of the eccentric dance team of Mata and Hari.

Pinocchio was one of the few TV musicals to get a cast album. The score, by Alec Wilder and William Engvick, is barely passable, and authenticity is compromised by the substitution of the suavely baritonal Gordon B. Clarke for Slezak. Further, like almost all its kind, Pinocchio didn't have enough music for a twelve-inch LP, and sought to fill out the running time with narration. It goes on forever, and, worse, it's by Rooney himself, putting on various voices and aided by sound effects. Perhaps I'm just the wrong audience for this. Rooney warns us at the start that Pinocchio is a tale "for children and people who used to be children." That lets me out.

Another movie star got his own TV musical, though it was actually filmed and, indeed, has the look of a movie: Van Johnson in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. This one is for children, period; it's the Barney and His Friends equivalent of a musical--in rhymed dialogue, no less. When the Piper offers to cure Hamelin of its rat infestation, a skeptical villager asks, "Can you send them on their way?" And the Piper replies, "With the music that I'll play." Alfred Drake had starred in a Marco Polo using the melodies of Rimsky-Korsakof, and Van Johnson must have said, "I'll have what he's having," because The Pied Piper uses the melodies of Grieg. True, Song of Norway had got there first, and it's odd to hear Johnson sing "Flim Flam Floo" to music we already recognize as "Freddy and His Fiddle." We also realize how creative Robert Wright and George Forrest were in crafting their Norway score, because they made a wonderful ballad, "Strange Music," out of Grieg's "Wedding Day in Troldhaugen" by using only the outline of the main theme. Here, the Grieg is used, as the opening chorus, very much as it was written, and it doesn't really work with words. Nor does "Anitra's Dance" (from the Peer Gynt music), which the Piper uses as an establishing song:

                     In Araby with just a tiny trill I
                     Slew a million toads...

It's a relief to turn to the Broadway adaptations, because even if the ninety-minute format meant cutting out much of each score, the songs were top in class to start with--and the casting tended to favor theatre specialists. The 1944 Bloomer Girl, for all its inquiry into race relations and feminism and its once-famous Civil War Ballet, has an uninspired book, and it's fascinating to see how Broadway pros, each in his own way, enliven it in a 1956 Producers Showcase airing. Barbara Cook and Keith Andes star, so the show--recently made available on DVD--preserves the way in which fifties sweethearts played the usual love-plot back-and-forth of deepening fondness and bickering worldviews: they bond the antagonisms in the songs. A surprising amount of the score was retained, too, even the second-act opening, "Sunday in Cicero Falls," with its own antagonisms of churchgoers and the rebelliously cynical Cook. Best of all, Agnes de Mille restaged her ballets, using at least some of "her" dancers--James Mitchell, Lidija Franklin, Robert Pagent, Virginia Bosler. Even Paul Ford, playing Cook's reactionary father, was to enjoy a relationship with the stage musical: he took over as the mayor in The Music Man (and filmed it) and went on to Whoop-Up, though he isn't on the album.

One of the very best of TV's Broadway is Annie Get Your Gun, from 1957, with Mary Martin and John Raitt. They're perfectly cast. It's fun to see what a good actor Raitt was--not psychologically dense but utterly one with the character--and because Annie's libretto is so good he doesn't have to finesse the dialogue the way Keith Andes does, over at Bloomer Girl. As for Martin, she more or less invented TV Broadway in that aforementioned  Peter Pan, and she owns the screen. I've seen high-strung Annies, more-acting-than-singing Annies, and Ethel Merman's Lincoln Center "Am I still doing this?" Annie, which was lively, but, I have to say, somewhat automatic. Of them all, I think Martin was the best, because the rococo warmth with which she made love to her public partnered up precisely with Annie's odd blend of ignorance and spunk. Lou Grant hated spunk, but the rest of us love it, and Martin's Annie had it. Moreover, she's actually working before a live house: NBC presented this Annie with an audience on hand. Perhaps the reason we don't have TV musicals any more is: we don't have the bigger-than-life talent to put them over.