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Back before Disney remade The Music Man, there were lots of original TV musicals -- 222 of them, to be exact.
I'm still getting e-mail from people who apparently taped the recent broadcast of The Music Man and are only now getting around to watching it. Pans for Broderick abound, as well as pans for the idea of doing a remake in the first place. "If they're going to do a TV musical," wrote Brigadude, "why don't they do an original one? Remember when there used to be a lot of those?"
Indeed. In a 52-year span, there were 222 original TV musicals according to Joan Baxter, who wrote the book, Television Musicals: Plots, Critiques, Casts, and Credits for 222 Shows, 1944-1996, which McFarland published in 1997. Yes, Brigadude, the penchant for new musicals created for television has paled in recent years. In 1996, there was a mere one: Mrs. Santa Claus. Ten years earlier, there had been two. Ten years before that (1976), five. 1966 yielded 11 and 1956 offered 16. See a disturbing trend here? What's even more interesting is that 56 of the 222 were deemed worthy enough to be recorded -- approximately one out of four.
The book is alphabetically arranged. The first entry is The Accused, a 1961 one-woman musical starring Patricia Neway -- the original Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music -- in a half-hour show. The final one is Young Man from Boston, an hour-long 1965 special about John F. Kennedy for which the Kingston Trio recorded the title song. In between, there are 33 Christmas-themed musicals including The Dangerous Christmas of Red-Riding Hood, which Jule Styne and Bob Merrill tackled after Funny Girl. Liza Minnelli played the title character and sang miserably.
Broadway songwriters showed up regularly. Styne and Leo Robin did Ruggles of Red Gap in 1957; that score included "I'm in Pursuit of Happiness," which -- I don't have to tell you -- was reworked two years later by Sondheim into "You'll Never Get away from Me" from Gypsy. In 1976, Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice collaborated on The Entertainer, a musicalization of John Osborne's play. In 1973, Kander and Ebb wrote Clothes Make the Girls, in which "a man from a small town is shocked to see his daughter acting in an Off-Broadway nudie show." Some lesser Broadway names can be found, too, such as Sammy (Ankles Aweigh) Fain, who composed Diamond for Carla, and Sidney Michaels and Mark Sandrich, who in 1961 wrote Tippy Top. They must have decided that they were getting along well enough to continue their partnership, which culminated in Ben Franklin in Paris in 1964. And a dozen years after Joel Hirschhorn and Lawrence Kasha had Copperfield on Broadway, they did Charles Dickens' Copperfield for TV with an almost completely different score.
Then there was Who's Ernest, the 1957 TV musicalization of The Importance of Being Earnest by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell. Variety said the collaborators had written "a charming score" that included "Mr. Bunbury," "Metaphorically Speaking," "Perfection," "Lost," "My Eternal Devotion," "My Very First Impression," and "A Wicked Man." Added Variety, "Any shortcomings were due to the one-hour running time." So Pockriss and Croswell went back to work, wrote seven more songs, and created the Off-Broadway musical Ernest in Love (1960).
Of course, there was Evening Primrose, the Sondheim-Goldman musical for the Stage 67 TV series that ABC presented in 1966-67. This was during the master's fallow period, so there is an irony to his writing "If you can find me, I'm here" for his lead character, who escapes life by hiding out in a department store -- only to discover that others had the same idea before he did. (My favorite moment came when three people were seen playing bridge with a mannequin.)
We all became familiar with Sondheim's score, first in bits and pieces and then in its entirety. But another irony is that Evening Primrose didn't get recorded at the time, though such Stage 67 fare as On the Flip Side (a Bacharach-David musical with former teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson) and Olympus 7-0000 (a Richard Adler musical about football) did. To be frank, I'm glad the latter was recorded, because it features one of Adler's best songs: "Better Things to Do," sung by Donald O'Connor and Phyllis Newman. Still, if you see Evening Primrose today at the Museum of Television and Radio, you feel like you're hearing standards when Charmian Carr sings "I Remember Sky" and "Take Me to the World."
The plots that Baxter summarizes suggest that some TV musicals had book trouble. Here's what happened in Griffelkin (1955), a 90-minute opera: "On his tenth birthday, Griffelkin, a young devil, is given a magic fluid to turn live people into stone and bring stone people to life." As for Gallantry, a 1962 half-hour opera: "Dr. Gregg is making passes at Nurse Lola. She tells him she is engaged." And then there was The Box Supper in 1950. Tell me if the plot reminds you of something else: "Two young men compete to win the bid for a box supper of a young and pretty schoolteacher at the church social." O.K.?
Some of the songs in these shows might not have been first-rate, either. The score of a 1960 hour-long special titled So Help Me, Aphrodite included -- so help me -- "You've Got to Keep a Woman in the Right-Hand Lane." But on the other hand, "Love and Marriage," a standard even before it served as the theme for Married with Children, came from Cahn and Van Heusen's musicalization of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. How was the rest of it? According to Baxter, "Wilder asked that this version of his play not be used again."
The reviews in Baxter's book are fun to peruse. They range from "artistry of the first order," which was Variety's opinion of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first Cinderella to "worth the price of transmission" for a Pinocchio in 1957. Of Satins and Spurs, that same publication said: "The show was short on humor." The musical's co-author? Neil Simon. That was in 1954. Two years later, Simon co-authored Paris in the Springtime, which Variety branded a "dismal display" with "too much libretto...the story got in everyone's way." Simon must have been pretty discouraged in those days and terribly uncertain of his future.
There was Death Goddess, a Japanese opera. And there was Deseret, about Brigham Young's 25th wife, who fell in love with someone else. (Brigham was big about it and let her go; well, he did have two dozen wives to spare!) But the name that surprised me the most was the composer of Noah and the Flood, a 1962 effort by Igor Stravinsky. I have to tell you, it was a flop. I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit.