I’ve recently discovered Glee. I know, where have I been, right? It’s practically passé already. I don’t watch TV anymore but wait around to check TV box sets out of the public library, so I’m part of the great swath of society that’s behind the curve on TV hipness. Please, don’t tell me how Lost ends.
For these even further behind than I, Glee is a snarky, fast-moving, musical TV series about a high school glee club. Every episode has several musical numbers, usually over-edited in the post-MTV style (partly to disguise amateur dancers?) but always energetic and fun. Since these numbers are presented in the context of performance with a backing band in the room, they are “realistic”. In other words, they’re set in what we call our real world, not a world where people spontaneously burst into song in the street.
Glee: The Complete First Season
US DVD: 14 Sep 2010
Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman
US DVD: 29 Mar 2011
But wait a minute. As the series continues, lines of reality become blurred. Some numbers are presented as taking place partly or entirely inside a character’s head. For example, the third episode in season one features Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) participating in a fundraising car-wash when she breaks a windshield. This breaking really happens, but the event triggers a fully choreographed number in which she sings “Break Your Windows”. That’s understood as imaginary because the person she’s talking to never notices it.
Without quite crossing the line, this flirts with the conventions of the integrated musical (e.g., Singin’ in the Rain or Oklahoma), which are set in an alternate universe of musicality. A similar example is in the ninth episode, when wheelchair-bound Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) sings “Dancing with Myself” while imagining himself in various locales. This prefigures his even more spectacular imagining of “Safety Dance” later in the season.
The extras on the Season One DVD include the typical making-of blather. Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox, is quoted saying “The idea of a musical on television has rarely been done and almost never successfully.” Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly chimes in, “When you’re dealing with a musical on television, there’s not a long rich history. This is not a cop show. There’s not a long rich history of these things working.”
Both men are correct, success-wise. That’s why the clearest precursor to Glee that most people can think of is Fame, an ‘80s series based on the film of the same name. That was also set at a high school, New York’s School for the Performing Arts. Like Glee, the numbers were realistically presented as rehearsals or performances, in this case with eye-catching choreography by Debbie Allen. It’s worth noting that one episode (“Not in Kansas Anymore”) evoked Hollywood’s tradition of the spontaneous musical for a plot in which a girl imagines herself as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and this event is explained as a dream.
Although many viewers probably can’t go farther than Glee and Fame in imagining TV musicals, the history of this genre bears some examination, and that’s the subject of today’s class. Come with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear as we explore the long, rich and strange history of TV’s forgotten musicals.
A Little Variety
As a series genre, it’s true that musicals haven’t been like cop shows or westerns. However, the musical variety show was once one of the tube’s staple offerings. Before the genre finally expired, it seemed that everyone who had a top 10 hit got their own show, at least a four-week summer series. Many shows ran for years built around such stars as Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, and on and on. All these shows had musical skits in addition to the solo songs and comedy sketches. Ed Sullivan even liked to stage scenes from currently popular Broadway shows starring the original cast.
The recent popularity of American Idol and the swarm of song and dance contests in its wake testifies to the vacuum of this genre’s absence as felt by the public. Where traditional variety shows were usually centered on a certain star (the myth of celebrity), today’s model centers on the myths of competition and success.
Actually, the second ever #1 series on national American TV, according to the Nielsen ratings, was such a competition, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts of the 1951-52 season. The #2 series that season, which had been #1 the season before, was Texaco Star Theatre or The Milton Berle Show. For a couple of years in the ‘50s, Berle’s format was loose enough that sometimes the episode was devoted to an original musical, such as Gore Vidal’s satirical State of Confusion (18 October 1955). Indeed, it was common into the ‘60s to see one-shot musicals on TV, either as specials or as part of anthology series (another staple of early TV), and these musicals included both Broadway adaptations and TV originals.
Two examples have recently been issued on DVD by the Archive of American Television. Ethel Merman re-created her Broadway hit Anything Goes in a loose truncation of Cole Porter’s show, throwing in a few famous songs that weren’t even in the original. It aired on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour on 28 February 1954. (The same year, Merman starred in a CBS production of Porter’s Panama Hattie, another of her hit shows.) This still fresh gem co-stars an entirely at ease Frank Sinatra and a delightful Bert Lahr, who provides the highlight: a knockout duet with Merman on “Friendship”. This live broadcast survived because Merman kept a kinescope (filmed off a monitor during broadcast). The episode’s producer was songwriter Jule Styne, who would star Merman in Gypsy, co-written with Stephen Sondheim.
That’s a good segue to the other DVD, Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, an original TV musical made for ABC Stage 67. It stars Anthony Perkins as a frustrated poet who escapes from the hectic world by hiding in a department store overnight. He discovers that many others have had the same idea, and there’s an aged autocracy of refugees who have lived in the store for decades. He falls in love with Charmian Carr—yes, this is the other musical project of Little Miss “16 Going on 17” from The Sound of Music, and she’s great on a haunting ballad called “I Remember Snow”. This is a weird story of yearning and loss, adapted by James Goldman from a story by John Collier. John Houseman produced it. Sadly, although broadcast in color, it survives only in this black and white kinescope.
For the record, producer Hubbell Robinson’s ABC Stage 67 (1966-67) was the last gasp of network TV’s general anthology format, which would soon be essentially replaced by the rise in TV movies. This series broadcast several original musicals, including Richard (Damn Yankees) Adler’s Olympus 7-0000, with Donald O’Connor as Greek god Hermes helping a football team; Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) adapting Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost with Michael Redgrave and Peter Noone (Herman’s Hermits); Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s On the Flip Side, with Joanie Summers as an angel who helps Rick Nelson; and Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Greene’s I’m Getting Married with Anne Bancroft and Dick Shawn.
Sound amazing? It reveals something about this cultural and televisual moment that the series aired a salute to the songs of Rodgers & Hart as performed by Bobby Darin, The Supremes, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, and Count Basie (where’s the tape of that?!), but the network refused to allow the series to air Bob Dylan’s own documentary about his electric European tour, Eat the Document, with appearances by John Lennon and Johnny Cash. Today, both episodes sound too hip for the room. Or too old for the room (ouch).
Have we already leaped to the death of the anthology? Too soon. A brief stroll through the glory days of musical comedy broadcasts should begin with NBC, where an hour-long series called Musical Comedy Time (1950-51) showed items like an Anything Goes with Martha Raye. In 1951, the network first aired Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, composed for TV. (A new version was taped in 1963.) In 1952 began a series of specials called NBC Opera Theatre with such productions as Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.
Then came Max Liebman Presents (1954-56), a monthly series of specials on Saturdays and Sundays. (Liebman had been the producer of Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.) The Sunday shows were usually revues while the Saturday shows were musicals, including Lady in the Dark, Babes in Toyland, A Connecticut Yankee, and The Merry Widow. NBC was a pioneer in color broadcasting, and at least one of these, Satins and Spurs with Betty Hutton, was in color.
Another NBC project was Fred Coe’s monthly Producers’ Showcase, which broadcast the acclaimed Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. It first aired 7 March 1955, was restaged 9 January 1956, and finally an oft-rerun color taping was made in 1960. Other productions included a musical version of Our Town (19 September 1955) with Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra; and something called The Lord Don’t Play Favorites (17 September 1956) with Louis Armstrong, Buster Keaton, Kay Starr and Dick Haymes.
Other NBC musicals, according to Alex McNeil’s Total Television, included Svengali and the Blonde (30 July 1955) with Carol Channing and Basil Rathbone, One Touch of Venus (27 August 1955), Marco Polo (14 April 1956) co-written by Neil Simon, Mr. Broadway (11 May 1957) with Mickey Rooney as George M. Cohan, Pinocchio (13 October 1957) also with Rooney, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (26 November 1957) with Van Johnson, Annie Get Your Gun (the following day!) with Mary Martin and John Raitt, and Roberta (19 September 1958) with Bob Hope and Anna Maria Alberghetti.
CBS got into the act during 1955-56 with monthly colors specials called Ford Star Jubilee, including Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews in High Tor (10 March 1956). Later CBS items include Wonderful Town (30 November 1958) with Rosalind Russell reprising her Broadway role, The Gift of the Magi (9 December 1958) with Gordon MacRae, Meet Me in St. Louis (26 April 1959) with Jane Powell and Tab Hunter, and The Bells of St. Mary’s (27 October 1959) with Claudette Colbert and Robert Preston.
Another CBS project was DuPont Show of the Month (1957-61), which aired Aladdin (21 February 1958), an original TV musical by none other than Cole Porter, with a book by S.J. Perelman. It starred Cyril Ritchard, who always played Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, and co-starred Sal Mineo, Basil Rathbone and Anna Maria Alberghetti.
One of the CBS’ greatests coups was Cinderella, a wonderful Rodgers & Hammerstein production written for TV. First it was broadcast live with Julie Andrews in 1957. Then came a taped color production with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965, repeated many times. Disney made yet a third version with Brandy in 1997. All are on DVD.
We’re barely scratching the surface of these musical broadcasts. The authority on this subject seems to be John Kenrick’s website Musicals101.com, which has a lengthy history of TV musicals going back to the pre-coaxial days of 1944 when something called The Boys from Boise aired 28 September on the DuMont Network. This may lead you to conclude that there truly is a long, rich history that’s been forgotten, since these mostly live productions are either vanished or, when we’re lucky, in black and white kinescopes and tapes at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, or Los Angeles and New York’s Museum of TV and Radio.