Santa, who knows my passions, gave me two videos that I cherish. One is the Rodgers & Hart musical Dearest Enemy, the other is Bloomer Girl, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Both shows were television productions, in 1955 and 1956. They are black and white videos, and the technical quality is, well, primitive. But the material! Let me tell you about them.
Both are set against the definitive wars of our country. The American Revolution supplies the plot for Dearest Enemy, which opened in 1925, just months after the Rodgers & Hart breakthrough review, The Garrick Gaieties. Dearest Enemy was thus the first book musical written by the pair of youngsters. (Rodgers was only 23.) The story line: General Howe and his contingent of British soldiers are bent on capturing George Washington, who is planning to rendezvous with one of his officers. The British are staying at the New York inn of Mrs. Murray, and Mrs. Murray and the other women at the inn contrive to detain the British long enough to spoil their plan. You can fill in the blanks. The romantic leads are played by Robert Sterling (a British officer) and Anne Jeffreys (one of the American contrivers). The comic relief is furnished by two old pros, Cyril Ritchard as General Howe and Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray. Only one song had lasting popularity: Here in My Arms. Here’s a Kiss gave a hint of the melodic treasures that Rodgers would give us over the decades to come, and Cheerio and Sweet Peter (Stuyvesant) were good novelty songs. The show was telecast (live, of course) on November 26, 1955. The credits include co-scripter Neil Simon and producer Max Liebman, best remembered today (by those old enough) as the creator of Your Show of Shows.
The other video, Bloomer Girl, is one of the great musicals of the 40s. Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist “Yip” Harburg had teamed up five years earlier to give the world the score for The Wizard of Oz, and the two outdid themselves in Bloomer Girl, with one blockbuster song after another, including Evelina, The Eagle and Me, Right as the Rain, When the Boys Come Home, and Sunday at Cicero Falls (with the memorable line “virtue is its own revenge”). The television cast is top-drawer, headed by Barbara Cook (pre-Marian the Librarian, pre-Cunegonde), with Keith Andes, Carmen Mathews, and Paul Ford providing strong support. Agnes DeMille staged the dances, and four of the dancers were in the original cast in 1944. (The television production was aired on May 28, 1956.) The title refers to the women’s campaign to replace hoop skirts with bloomers, but the weightier theme is the country’s schism over slavery. Harburg, always an ardent liberal, wrote one of his best lyrics for The Eagle and Me. (“What makes the gopher leave its hole, trembling with fear and fright? Maybe the gopher’s got a soul, wanting to see the light…”) This is a more serious play than Dearest Enemy, but it is still a musical comedy. There is a war in the wings in both plays, but not a drop of blood is spilled in either.
Any lover of musicals will value the chance to see these telecasts – the only surviving record of either play. It is hard to understand how Arthur Freed let Bloomer Girl escape the MGM treatment.
When watching these grainy kinescopes, it is easy to cluck at the their technical shortcomings. But wait. Viewers in 1955 and 1956 may not have had Blue Ray or Surround Sound, but they could watch good studio productions of important musicals. What do we have in their place? Two and a Half Men? CSI? People 50 years ago could watch good variety shows, with Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett. They had The Bell Telephone Hour, Playhouse 90, Studio One. We have big, flat screens – and very little of quality on them.