TV Musicals, 1944 – 1996

February 4, 2014

The success of NBC’s live telecast of The Sound of Music last December has sparked interest in the televising of musicals. That interest may only increase now that NBC has announced it is going to do another one next December – this time it will be the venerable Peter Pan, a show that many associate with televised musicals because of the legendary production that starred Mary Martin way back in 1955.

Discussions of musicals on TV drew my thoughts back to a slender volume published by reference book publisher McFarland nearly two decades ago. Joan Baxter’s Television Musicals has a highly descriptive subtitle: Plots, Critiques, Casts and Credits for 222 Shows Written for and Presented on Television, 1944-1996.

That its coverage ends in 1996 isn’t really that much of a drawback, as the past two decades haven’t exactly been hotbeds of musical magic on TV. Sure, we’ve had Smash, which, as a soap opera about the business of making musicals on Broadway, had lots of musical numbers, and we’ve had the musical episodes of South Park, the on-tube work of The Book of Mormon creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But any volume that was up to date as this one was in 1996 is still a treasure today.

Because Baxter’s topic was “musicals written for television” she didn’t reach back for some of the iconographic musical telecasts of shows written for Broadway including the Mary Martin Peter Pan I mentioned before. It didn’t make the volume because it was a show written for Broadway and only later staged before the cameras.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, on the other hand, is covered in both its legendary original telecast of 1957 and its 1965 remounting. Of the ’57 original, Baxter reports the oft-cited claim on CBS that the telecast drew more than a hundred million viewers, but she also reports the less frequently mentioned fact that the show drew Emmy nominations for Julie Andrews, Richard Rodgers and for “camera work,” but won none.

Baxter also excludes musical variety shows which were so popular in the heyday of network television but for each of the 222 musicals she covers, Baxter gives a satisfying capsule of the information she found on each. She gives the show’s full credits, information on the telecast, a description of the plot, the songs and musical numbers and e ven a sampling of the reviews, if any. For those that had their scores recorded she provides the catalog number of the album, and for those that had songs published she gives that information as well.

Baxter’s introduction laments the lack of information about (and copies of) so many of the made-for-television musicals from the media’s early years. She even says that “the information gaps at times proved so disheartening that I thought of calling this book ‘Lost Musicals.’”

Whatever frustrations disheartened her, we can be grateful that she kept at it, for oh, the riches she unearthed!

She tells us about The Boys from Boise, the first full-length original musical written for television for which she could locate documentation. This work of composer/lyricist/conductor Sam Medoff was telecast on the DuMont network in 1944. The plot, summarized by Baxter, involved “showgirls stranded in Boise (who) take jobs as cowgirls on a ranch to raise fare to return home.” That World War II was still underway explains why the plot is complicated by the ranch manager being drafted.

Ten years later – almost to the day – NBC began its programming of color “Spectaculars” with Satins and Spurs, an original musical composed by Jay Livingston, with lyrics by Ray Evans, starring Betty Hutton. It featured orchestra arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Irwin Kostel and Henry Mancini, and Neil Simon was one of the writers. It was the first of a long line of musicals to be produced for television by Max Liebman.

Baxter covers operas composed for television, including the most famous one: 1951′s Amahl and the Night Visitors which NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame commissioned from Gian Carlo Menotti. Baxter cites Time magazine’s report that the telecast had “the largest  TV hook up NBC ever lined up for an opera” – 35 stations. That seemed a strange factoid given that she also reported that it was the first opera commissioned for television.

Other operas demonstrate some of the strange story lines that made it to the little screen. Part of the story description for 1963′s NBC Opera Theater presentation of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Labyrinth includes this: “The groom then enters a room that turns into a rocket ship, where an astronaut sings of the wonders of space but then cries ‘meteors’ as the ship explodes.”

A 30 minute opera called Break of Day was aired on ABC in 1961 in which “A Roman soldier is accused of stealing Jesus’ body when the tomb is found empty” and a CBS item from the same year, The Accused, concerned “A Woman condemned to death in the Salem witch trials (who) faces her accusers.” In 1973, PBS carried The Death Goddess, Shinichiro Ikebe’s opera which Baxter describes as “an undertaker is unhappy with his life. The Death Goddess falls in love with him and gives him the power to save lives, provided he makes love to her each time he uses the power.”

Musicals, as opposed to operas, had a host of strange plot lines as well. Consider Stephen Sondheim’s only written-for-television musical, Evening Primrose, about people who live in a department store who hide all day and socialize at night. Then there was All About Me, an animated musical from 1973 in which “A young boy falls asleep in class and dreams he is touring his own body.” Baxter adds that the boy “learns all about his organs and body functions through the explanations of Colonel Corpuscle.”

Twenty eight black and white photos offer glimpses into what some of these telecasts might have been like although some are simply head shots of well known stars. Among those photos that tantalize, however, you will find Liza Minnelli in costume for The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (Or Oh Wolf, Poor Wolf!) an amazingly befuddling photo captioned “A befuddled Rick Nelson plays a has-been rock singer in On The Flip Side” and production stills from both of the made-for-tv musical series, 1968′s That’s Life which starred Robert Morse and Steven Bochco’s 1990 Cop Rock, “a crime show where everyone sang.”

As a research volume, this is a valuable addition to a Theater Shelf but it leaves me wishing there were copies of all 222 television musicals which could be viewed today. Lets hope more unknown copies surface over time.
Television Musicals:
Plots, Critiques, Casts and Credits for 222 Shows Written for and Presented on Television, 1944-1996

by Joan Baxter
McFarland & Company, Publishers
ISBN 978-0-7864-7404-2
204 pages including name and song index, chronology and bibliography