As a fan of musicals and TV history, I wish I could see more of the musicals that were produced live for TV in the ’50s. New York was the centre of U.S. TV production at that time. (It would soon shift to Los Angeles, which is where a lot of the arguments in U.S. TV come from: the idea that there used to be a Golden Age of New York-based television that was betrayed by the philistines is at the heart of a lot of anti-TV arguments and movies like Network.) So it was natural that the American musical, at that time at its commercial peak, was a major presence in early TV. While cameras weren’t allowed into the theatres themselves, there were some original TV musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, while there were live TV stagings of already-classic musicals from the ’30s and ’40s, particularly the ones that hadn’t been made into feature films. One of the live stagings that’s most familiar is an Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin (who had played the part on tour) and John Raitt (ditto), a rare chance to experience the book and score more or less as they originally werer, albeit with some cuts to fit it into a prime-time TV slot.
This clip below is from a live TV production of another ’40s classic, Bloomer Girl, which aired in 1956 as an episode of the anthology show Producers’ Showcase. This mishmash of the Civil War, feminism, anti-racism and romance isn’t very well known now, but it ran for a year and a half based on its canny stitching-together of everything that was popular in 1944 when it was produced: it had a bit of Gone With the Wind, a lot of the previous year’s big hit Oklahoma!, and songs that sounded a bit like Cabin in the Sky (one of the songs was even written for that movie, but cut). The TV production seems to have had a well-chosen cast: Barbara Cook, then young and starring in the cult flop Candide, as the spunky feminist heroine, and Broadway baritone Keith Andes — who, however, sometimes seems less than certain about which musical entrance comes when — as the guy who’s courting her for her money but eventually falls in love with her for reals.
This clip has two separate moments from the show, both fantastic songs by my favourite U.S. songwriting team, composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg (they did The Wizard of Oz together, most famously). “Evelina” is a teasing duet and a combination of period pastiche with Arlen’s bluesy style, while “Right as the Rain” is one of the best ballads written for Broadway. But it’s much better to see these numbers in something resembling context than to hear them on a record.
There have been lots of TV musicals since then, including many productions that followed the exact pattern of these shows: take an old musical and do it for TV with modern-day performers (like The Music Man with Matthew Broderick and Kristen Chenoweth). But this is one type of thing where live-from-New-York TV broadcasting probably works better than doing it on film: even though most of these production didn’t try to stage the plays exactly as they would look in a theatre, they did have a kind of raw energy that suggested live theatre, and even more the energy of the theatre community at that time.
The only other clip from that show online is a re-creation of Agnes DeMille’s show-stopping dance number from the 1944 production, the Civil War Ballet (with Arlen’s tunes arranged into a ballet score by Trude Rittmann, who wrote ballets for most of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows among many others).