Musicals on Television: The 1980s

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

(Thanks to Bruce Olsen, Robert Barto, Lee Bridges and Michael Porter for contributing to the list below!)

Tell Me On a Sunday

(Metromedia - Syndicated) Spring 1980
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black
Starring Marti Webb

This moving one-woman show about an English girl seeking romance in Manhattan later evolved into the first half of the stage musical Song and Dance. Webb gave a touching performance, scoring with the song "Tell Me On a Sunday." Produced in Britain, it was shown via syndication on various stations in the US.

The Most Happy Fella

(PBS) 1980
Score by Frank Loesser
Cast: Giorgio Tozzi, Sharon Daniels, Richard Muenz, Louisa Flaningham, Dennis Warning

Georgio Tozzi and Sharon Daniels in The Most Happy FellaA beautiful video of the acclaimed but short-lived 1979 Broadway revival, taped live in performance. Tozzi and company are magnificent. Loesser's most underrated masterpiece is shown to excellent advantage in a handsomely mounted production. Beautifully acted and sung! If you can find a pirate copy of this rarity on tape or disk, grab it. This should have been made available on home video long before now!

Alice at the Palace

(NBC) 1981
Cast: Meryl Streep, Debbie Allen, Betty Aberlin, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael Jeter

An updated spin on the Lewis Carroll classic showed off Streep and several other fresh talents.

Happy Days: An American Musical

(ABC) May 21, 1981
Directed by Jerry Paris
Cast: Henry Winkler, Marion Ross, Anson Williams, Erin Moran, Scott Baio, Al Molinaro, Tom Bosley, Ted McGinley

Chachi has to write a term paper on immigration, inspiring a series of uninspired musical vignettes. A disappointment – this series did a much more enjoyable musical episode in 1978.

I Do, I Do!

Directed by Terry Hughes
Book by Tom Jones
Score by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt
Cast: Hal Linden, Lee Remick

An entertaining adaptation of the two character Schmidt & Jones Broadway hit about a couple surviving fifty years of marriage.

Sweeney Todd

(PBS) 1982
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Terry Hughes and Hal Prince
Cast: Angela Lansbury, George Hearn, Cris Groenendaal, Betsy Joslyn, Edmund Lyndeck, Ken Jennings

An all-star Broadway line-up, as seen in the original national tour. Lansbury's Tony-winning Mrs. Lovett and Hearn's searing Sweeney lead the way for one of the most dazzling ensemble performances ever caught on video. This Sondheim masterpiece is seen and heard at its very best – a must-see for all musical theater lovers.


(Showtime) 1982
Directed by Marty Callner
Cast: Richard Harris (Arthur), Meg Bussert (Guenevere), Richard Muenz (Lancelot), Richard Backus (Mordred)

A lavish and well-cast stage revival of this Lerner & Loewe classic was taped for US cable broadcast. Harris (was he ever sober?) is over the top and clumsily re-dubbed some of his numbers, but Meg Bussert is divine as Guenevere.

The Love Boat Follies

(ABC) Feb. 27, 1982
Cast: Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Van Johnson, Della Reese

A special two hour episode of The Love Boat featured an all-star cast staging a shipboard revue. When the four ladies join forces for a rendition of "I'm the Greatest Star," it's a delicious clash of musical titans.

On the Road to Broadway

(NBC) April 26, 1982
Cast: Debby Boone, Dionne Warwick

Boone and other members of the cast of the Broadway-bound Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were joined by Warwick for this look at (what else?) performers preparing a show for Broadway. Seven Brides did poorly in New York, even though it was far better than this TV effort.

Ain't Misbehavin'

(NBC) June 21, 1982
Songs by Fats Waller
Cast: Nell Carter, Ken Page, Armelia McQueen, Andre DeSheilds, Charlaine Woodard

The original Broadway cast stars in this first-rate production.  Fats Waller's songs are the excuse for some unforgettable performances, and the stylish staging is intact. If you can find a copy of this, treat yourself -- its the real thing!

Something's Afoot

(Showtime) 1984
Cast: Jean Stapleton, Andy Gibb, Charlotte Moore

This underrated musical who-dunnit spoof was taped live in performance. A first-rate cast, with Stapleton hilarious throughout.

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown

(Animated) 1985
Voices: Kevin Brando, Michael Cockery, Jessie Lee Smith, Robert Towers

A faithful animated version of the off-Broadway hit. Not quite as good as the 1973 live-action version, but still fun. This led to an animated version of Snoopy three years later (see below).


(CBS) Dec. 3, 1985
Music and Lyrics by Barry Manilow
Produced by Dick Clark
Cast: Barry Manilow (Tony), Annette O'Toole (Lola), Joseph Bologna (Rico), Estelle Getty (Tony's Mama)

Inspired by Manilow's hit disco song of the same name, this was the only original musical written for American network TV in the 1980s. A showgirl named Lola and her musician boyfriend Tony try to make it in the nightclub world of the 1940s. Their love story has its ups and downs until the gangster Rico leads them all into tragedy. Most of this stylish, old-fashioned (and I mean that in a flattering way) production is extremely entertaining. The score is tuneful and invokes some fun 40s sounds ("Man Wanted" is one the Andrews Sister might have killed for) – and yes, the familiar title tune begins and ends the story. Poor Lola! The next time this shows up as a rerun, set the VCR – worth catching, it received an Emmy for best direction. A very different stage version came along several years later.

Alice in Wonderland

(CBS) Dec 9-10, 1985
Songs by Steve Allen
Produced by Irwin Allen
Cast: Natalie Gregory, Scott Baio, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Merv Griffin, Harvey Korman, Roddy McDowall, Ringo Starr

It took a producer who specialized in disaster films to mount this all-star fiasco. Gregory was okay as Alice, but everything around her kept overwhelming the original story. Steve Allen's score was not his best work. At four hours (originally shown in two parts), this was as tedious as they come.

Sunday in the Park With George

(PBS) 1986
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Terry Hughes and James Lapine
Cast: Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Charles Kimbrough, Dana Ivey, Chris Groenendaal

The original Broadway production of Sondheim's ambitious look at the meaning of artistic creativity, taped on stage at Broadway's Booth Theatre. Patinkin and Peters are pure magic, and the glorious Act One finale is captured in its full brilliance (Note: many felt it looked better on the Tony Award telecast). Overall a must-see production. What a pity more Broadway shows are not preserved in this kind of video treatment.


(PBS) 1986
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by lotsa folks
Directed by Hal Prince
Cast: Erie Mills, David Eisler, John Lankston, Muriel Costa-Greenspon, Scott Reeve

This is the opera house version of Candide as it debuted in 1985 at New York City Opera. Lavish, hilarious and sung to near perfection, this is my favorite incarnation of an often revised gem. You'll enjoy every member of the massive cast. The show-stopping aria "Glitter and Be Gay" gets definitive treatment from American diva Mills, Lankston is wonderful as narrator Pangloss, and the "Make Our Garden Grow" finale never sounded more breathtaking. It's the "best of all possible" productions of a brilliant, difficult show.

Babes in Toyland

(NBC) Dec. 19, 1986
Songs by Leslie Bricusse
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, Eileen Brennan, Richard Mulligan, Pat Morita

Dreadful in every way. An army of stars are stuck in this mess, along with just two of Victor Herbert's original 1903 melodies. I admire Bricusse, but this score was not up to his usual standard. Sad to say, this has been rerun several times. Cruel and unusual punishment for children of any age.

Snoopy: The Musical

(Animated) 1988
Music by Larry Grossman
Lyrics by Hal Hackady
Voices: Cameron Clarke, Jeremy Miller

An animated version of the off-Broadway musical, the second such project based on Charles Schultz's beloved Peanuts comic strip. A good adaptation of a charming show -- pity there has not been a live action production for television.

The New Moon

(PBS) 1989
Music by Sigmund Romberg, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Robert Johanson
Cast: Richard White, Leigh Munro, James Billings, Muriel Costa-Greenspon

The old Romberg operetta still works in this lavish New York City Opera production, performed live at Virginia's Wolf Trap Park. Fantastic casting and a healthy dash of swashbuckle add to the fun. White makes a sexy, dashing hero, and his romantic "Wanting You" duet with Munro is a highlight. "Stouthearted Men" and the lush "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" are also musical treasures. If you want to see what grand, old-style operetta was all about, this production (which City Opera revived with great success several times) embodied the genre at its best.


(PBS) 1989
Music by Jerome Kern, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Robert Johanson
Cast: Eddie Bracken, Richard White, Rebecca Baxter, Shelly Burch, Lee Roy Reams, Lenora Nemetz

Hammerstein's son William assisted in preparing the text for this exquisite Paper Mill Playhouse (NJ) production taped live in performance. The cast is first rate throughout, especially Bracken in a tour de force as Captain Andy. Heartfelt and lavish, this is as beautiful a Showboat as one could hope for.


(NBC-Disney) Nov. 12, 1989 
Directed by Debbie Allen
Songs by Joel McNeely
Cast: Keshia Knight Pullman, Phylicia Rashad, Brok Peters, Celeste Holm, Ken Page, Butterfly McQueen, Dorian Harewood

PLEASE NOTE: We have received hundreds of e-mails about this broadcast. As of this writing, Polly is not available on home video -- and we have no idea how to obtain a copy. Sorry!

Disney reset the 1890s story of Pollyanna in 1950s Alabama. A black orphan girl goes to live with her domineering aunt, and proceeds to melt every cold heart in town with her irrepressible spirits. The story held up well, Cosby Show stars Pullman and Rashad were charming, and Debbie Allen staged some winning numbers. Not a classic, but entertaining overall and a ratings winner with many devoted fans. Most of the same team worked on a sequel televised one year later.

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