The good people at VAI – Video Artists International – continue mining the gold of old kinescopes of early television shows much to the delight of musical theater lovers. Four new discs featuring performances by the likes of Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, Barbara Cook, and Jo Sullivan document the genre of the "Spectaculars" that presented full musicals – some written for TV and some adapted for the medium. 

This latest crop hails from the televisionally magic time between December of 1954 and April of 1957. History tells us this period wasn't exactly a "vast wasteland" of escapism in public affairs. Over that span, the front pages of newspapers were reporting momentous events from the Supreme Court's decree that segregation by race in public schools must come to an end, to the launch of mankind's first earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik. 

The back pages of those papers covered the latest offerings on Broadway (The Pajama Game, Inherit the Wind, Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady and West Side Story) and Hollywood (On The Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, The Bridge on the River Kwai) while radio was making hits of "Mister Sandman" "Rock Around The Clock" and "Love and Marriage." The period was memorable for a young hip swinger (not to be confused with a hip young swinger) by the name of Elvis.

Many of the most popular television shows were regular series such as I Love Lucy, Dragnet and The Jackie Gleason Show in prime time and earlier fare for younger audiences including Captain Kangaroo and The Mickey Mouse Club. RCA was just beginning to introduce color television and producers like Max Liebman, George Schaefer and Alex Segal were turning out fully staged musicals. 

In December of 1954 Liebman had such a hit with a production of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland that he decided to repeat it in December of 1955. The original book by Glen MacDonough was updated and joked up by Liebman's stable of writers which included Neal Simon, Fred Saidy and William Freidberg while the score, which includes the soaring song "Toyland" and the famous "Toy Soldiers' March," was supported by sparkling new orchestrations by Irwin Kostal. 

Liebman's decision to repeat the program in 1955 presented a bit of a problem, however. In those days, shows weren't video taped. (Ampex introduced the first commercial video recording machine only eight months before the first Babes in Toyland telecast.) The only way to do a "re-run" was to do a re-staging. 

Liebman gathered the same crew, used the same script and nearly duplicated the same cast. Dave Garroway (he, of the famous sign off: "Peace") was Santa Clause. Famous tenor Dennis Day was "Tommy Tucker" who wanted to marry "Jane Piper." The original "Mr. Peepers," Wally Cox, repeated his role as the apprentice toymaker while insult comedian (think of the kind of comedy Don Rickles made so much of later) Jack E. Leonard overacted his way through the show as the evil "Silas Barnaby."

The 1954 "Jane Piper," Jo Sullivan, was busy starring in the hit Off-Broadway show Threepenny Opera and wasn't available for the 1955 repeat of Babes in Toyland, so Liebman got another Broadway ingenue, Barbara Cook, to step into the role even though she was starring in her own hit, Plain and Fancy. Now, over half a century later, this posed a bit of a problem for the DVD producers at VAI. Since both versions exist in good, clean, clear kinescopes, which version should they release? Their solution is the right one – they put both on one disc. You can watch one or the other or both. Me? I found different things to like in each version. 

Babes in Toyland debuted on Broadway in 1903 which means it was fifty years old when Liebman produced it on television. In 1956 Alex Segal produced (and directed) a television adaptation of a then-much-more-recent Broadway show, Bloomer Girl, featuring the same Barbara Cook who was in that second Toyland telecast. Bloomer Girl was a musical with a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, set during the Civil War. It was the saga of the anti-slavery movement blended with a southern belle romance and the efforts of Dolly Bloomer to popularize pants for women. The telecast featured dances staged by Agnes De Mille, who had choreographed the original production at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in 1944. 

In 1957 Schaefer dug further back in time to mount a somewhat abridged version of Gilbert and Sullivan's darkest of their comic/romantic operas, 1888's The Yeomen of the Guard. Subtitled The Merryman and His Maid, the musical was set on London's Tower Green in the 16th Century where gentlemen loose their heads literally as well as figuratively. Alfred Drake brought charm, a sense of command and his wonderfully rich voice to the role of a strolling jester

The gem of the bunch, however, is the one telecast not based on a stage musical, Marco Polo. On April 14, 1956 Liebman presented this new musical which had a book by William Friedberg and Neil Simon and a score by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl. They based their score for this television musical on melodies from Russian classical composer Rimsky-Korsakov in much the same way that the score for Broadway's Kismet was based on the melodies of Alexander Borodin. 

Friedberg and Simon's book is based loosely on the travelog written by Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century after returning to Venice from his 24 years in Asia including tours of the realm of the Mongol ruler Kublai Kahn. They stick fairly close to the historical record and Warnick and Pahl find the basis for a number of songs in the lessons Marco Polo drew from his observations and the romance of the many locales the story reaches. Polo longs to see what lies "Beyond the Sunrise," finds intrigue in "The Tartar Song" and marvels at the variety to be found in "Worlds," while the Kahn himself sings "Uneasy Lies the Head." 

The transitions from dialogue to song are nicely polished. For the song "Population" speech segues into song fluidly: The spoken dialogue "One could scarcely journey from Venice to Cathay without noticing the Earth's most flourishing crop – people. They sprout on the sea, and in the deserts. They crowd in the cities ... in some instances they hang from trees" merges nicely with the sung "As I'm wondering through all creation / I keep pondering on population / and I keep wondering about the mighty mystery of him and her and he and she. While inspecting the land and ocean / I'm collecting a lot of notions." 

Who gets to sing this? None other than Alfred Drake, who, of course, was the original star of Kismet as well as the original "Curly" in Oklahoma!, "Fred Graham" in Kiss Me, Kate and MacHeath in Beggar's Holliday. As much charm and musical richness as he would demonstrate in the telecast of The Yeomen of the Guard a year later, here he is even more charming, more commanding of voice and more in command of the entire performance. 

The decision to put both the 1954 and the 1955 telecasts of Babes in Toyland on one disc meant that VAI didn't have time available for the commercials that ran in the originals. They did include the commercials on the other three discs, however, placing them at the end so they don't interrupt the musicals. As a result, there are ten minutes of commercials for the "Ford Family of Fine Cars" on the Bloomer Girl disc, nine minutes of Hallmark Card commercials on The Yeomen of the Guard and seven minutes of Oldsmobile pitches on the Marco Polo disc. They make interesting viewing.

On these four releases, it appears that VAI has done everything right. The quartet is a fine addition to the DVD portion of your theater shelves. 

Babes in Toyland - VAI DVD 4557 
Black and White - Running time 152 minutes

Bloomer Girl - VAI DVD 4555
Black and White - Running time 76 minutes

The Yeomen of the Guard - VAI DVD 4553
Black and White - Running time 79 minutes

Marco Polo - VAI DVD 4556
Black and White - Running time 80 minutes
List Price $29.95 each 

January 15, 2013

Early Television Musical "Spectaculars"