Musicals on Television:
by John Kenrick
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Preface: Musicals On Radio
While the songs from stage and screen musicals were omnipresent on radio in the 1930s and 1940s, only a few musicals were written directly for radio. The Gibson Family was a musical situation comedy series that ran on the NBC Red Radio Network for thirty-nine weeks in 1935, featuring songs written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. That same year, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were contracted for a series of radio musicals by CBS, but only provided one entitled Let's Have Fun. Several variety series were broadcast live from Broadway theatres, including Ed Wynn's acclaimed show but these rarely used original songs.
Lux Radio Theatre was the best known of several series that adapted hit films for broadcast, often with one or more of the original screen stars recreating their perofrmances. Among other titles, Lux presented Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and Charles Winninger in Show Boat. The Maxwell House Showboat series (1932-1937) presented a revue in a semi-book format, with Winninger as "Captain Henry," a blatant rip-off of his classic character, Captain Andy.
Command Performance was a series of special all-star broadcasts for those serving overseas during World War II. One of their most memorable projects was Dick Tracy In B-Flat, a musical spoof of the popular comic strip. Broadcast in February 1945, it starred Bing Crosby as Dick Tracy, Dinah Shore as his beloved Tess Truehart, Bob Hope as the evil "Flat Top" and Jimmy Durante as "The Mole." The stellar supporting cast included Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra and others. The score consisted of comic parodies as when Garland, tied up and held hostage over a barrel by the evil Flat Top, sang "Somewhere Over a Barrel." A transcription of the two-part broadcast exists on CD, and is great fun to listen to.
Now and then an abridged radio broadcast version of a stage musical featured a Broadway star. Several of these have appeared on CD, including Gertrude Lawrence in Lady In The Dark, Ethel Merman in Something For the Boys, and Walter Houston in Knickerbocker Holiday. Whatever their technical limitations, these recordings are quite delightful catch them if you can. However there was no denying that musicals lost much of their impact (including all sight gags) in a non-visual medium.
From 1948 to 1954, The Railroad Hour presented Gordon MacRae in a weekly series of abridged stage musicals and operettas. Although the material was radically edited to fit the broadcast format (30 to 45 minutes, minus time for ads) these broadcasts were an entertaining excuse for MacRae and a revolving list of star sopranos (including the Met's Dorothy Kirsten and MGM's Jane Powell) to sing highlights of old operettas (Robin Hood, Mlle. Modiste), newer musicals (Oklahoma, Kismet) and on a few occasions original material. The series inspired a series of popular recordings featuring MacRae and Kirsten, and tapes of the original broadcasts can be found in the sound collection of New York City's Library for the Performing Arts.
Musicals Come To Television
There were a few original musicals written for television in the 1940s, but viewers were few and these shows are essentially forgotten. Most experts agree that the first original televised musical was The Boys From Boise, broadcast by the DuMont Network on Sept. 28, 1944. It had a score by Sam Medoff and told the story of a troupe of showgirls stranded on an Idaho ranch. Although well received, it boasted no stars, turned out no hit songs and started no trends.
Early television often turned to Broadway when it sought high-powered musical talent. "Spectaculars" were all the rage, with as many stars and under-rehearsed production numbers as the networks could muster. 1950 brought a short-lived NBC series called Musical Comedy Time, presenting hour-long versions of famous musicals. The following year, NBC broadcast massive all-star tributes to Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. A few operas were composed for early television, including Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors (NBC - 1951) and Martinu's The Marriage (NBC -1953). It took a an intimate exchange between two musical comedy divas to make Broadway-style musicals a major attraction on the small screen.
On June 15, 1953, the Ford Motor Company commemorated its fiftieth anniversary by sponsoring an all-star television spectacular. The highlight was Ethel Merman and Mary Martin in a joint performance directed by Jerome Robbins and transmitted live from the stage of Broadway's massive Center Theatre. The concept and staging were so simple that the Merman-Martin duet segment stole the evening. Each lady sang a solo before launching into duet medleys of vintage tunes. Backed by conductor Jay Blackton and pianist John Lesko both Broadway veterans Merman and Martin were dynamite. Jointly broadcast by CBS and NBC, the show attracted sixty million viewers and received critical acclaim nationwide. Decca's live soundtrack recording of the Merman-Martin act sold over 100,000 copies in two days and is a joy, if you can find it. Better yet, a DVD release makes it possible to watch a kinescope of this historic broadcast.
A kinescope is literally a motion picture of a telecast as seen through a TV screen. The resulting picture is technologically inferior, but kinescopes are usually the only surviving record of early live telecasts.
Networks saw the potential, and a number of revues and variety specials appeared. One of the most memorable was a 1954 General Foods tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein telecast live on all four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Dumont) featuring an all-star cast. Several musicals were adapted for the small screen. Mary Martin's place in America's cultural history was reinforced when. her musical staging of Peter Pan was broadcast live on NBC in 1955. With its Broadway cast and production intact, the show drew millions of viewers and nationwide critical acclaim.
In the years that followed, original musicals and adaptations of stage shows became a common sight on American television, peaking in the late 1950s but continuing through the 1960s. Although new televised musicals were rare from the 1970s onward, re-runs of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Cinderella and popular holiday musicals like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer drew high ratings. PBS brought live performances of stage musicals to the airways in the 1980s, and the whole genre got a boost from several popular productions on CBS and ABC in the late 1990s.
The pages that follow list major musicals broadcast on American television from the early 1950s to today. It includes several animated musicals that had casts and/or scores of particular distinction.
(Note: As of the creation of this page, there have been far too few books published covering televised musicals in any detail, so please e-mail me at email@example.com if you can fill in any missing information or know of other televised musical productions worth mentioning here.)