Thursday September 6, 2012

KEENE, N.H.

My deep thanks to Video Artists International (VAI) for preserving on DVD musical comedies that were seen on television back in the 1950s.

There is Cole Porter’s "Kiss Me, Kate" from 1958, historically, as well as entertainingly, important thanks to Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison in their original roles. There is Rodgers and Hart’s "A Connecticut Yankee" from 1955 with Eddie Albert and Janet Blair. This was "live" television, mistakes and all. My favorite is the time when a knight’s beaver kept falling over his eyes and he could barely open it on the third closing. I will report on the others telecasts when I get to view them.

The most recent entries form a neat contrast to how the originals were handled. First of all, each show was allowed 77 minutes for the musical itself, and a good deal of cutting had to be made. That is acceptable. Second, the picture and sound are obviously 1950-ish, far from the state-of-the-art features of today’s technology. That adds to the charm of watching these videos.

"Dearest Enemy" is a 1925 early effort by Rodgers and Hart that contained only one song that outlasted the original run, "Here in Your Arms," but the rest of the score is by no means inferior to most musicals of the times; and Larry Hart’s clever rhymes show the promise of even cleverer ones to come. It was shown in 1955.

The cast has Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray, who became a legend when she delayed General Howe from capturing George Washington by throwing a party; and Anne Jeffrey as Betsy, who distracted his second in command (played by Robert Sterling). Cyril Ritchard steals most of his scenes as a jolly and prancing Howe. The party is history, the rest is Broadway.

It is helpful that Jeffrey’s operatic voice is nicely matched by Sterling, whose voice is strong enough to keep up with hers.

From what I could research, this television version seems very faithful to the original play, except (I suspect) for the framing device of having Howe and three other generals look back years later at how a bunch of lovely colonists lost the war for Britain.

On the other hand, Oscar Straus’ "The Chocolate Soldier," shown earlier in 1955, suffers a sea change that is truly uncalled for. It is faithful to the original in Act I, and then the plot changes to a farce in which the title character poses as a general. Operetta revivals have almost consistently showed no respect for the original work. Hollywood would take, for example, "Naughty Marietta," keep the songs, throw away the plot, come up with a new scenario, while still calling it "Naughty Marietta" to attract audiences.

I question why the producers of the television version thought fit to hire writers, Neil Simon among them, to come up with an "American version" of a European classic. Badly miscast from a vocal point of view is Eddie Albert as the realistic fugitive who prefers chocolates to bullets and falls for the young girl in whose bedroom he has taken refuge. His duets with the female lead point out his vocal weakness somewhat painfully.

You see, that girl is played by American Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens -- and that is a great reason for wanting this DVD. Although she looks a bit old for a young girl, her mezzo is fabulous. "My Hero" never sounded as good! Akim Tamiroff, who plays her father, can not sing at all, while his English is often hard to follow.

Less fabulous is the silly dance given to the country’s troops (no name is given to either country in the war) that goes on far too long. The ballet sequence with Bambi Linn and Rod Alexander, as well danced as it is, is not at all integrated into the plot.

Both of these telecasts were part of the "Max Liebman Presents" series, that some readers might recall.

One word about the packaging of these discs. VAI gives the complete cast on the back cover with some program notes that are quite interesting. Better yet, there is an insert that gives the tracking numbers for each song and scene of dialogue (so you can select your favorite songs). It even gives the timings. A good job all around.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.