Marco Polo’s Travels Are Set to Rimski Korsakov’s Music
Here is a forgotten musical especially designed for television and I am delighted that Video Artists International has decided to restore it on a VAI DVD.
“Marco Polo” (telecast April 14, 1956) is obviously inspired by the musical “Kismet” (1953). The book is by William Friedberg and Neil Simon, the lyrics by Edward Eager, and the music of Rimski Korsakov is adapted by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl. Even Kismet stars Alfred Drake Doretta Morrow in the leads are cast to complete the feeling of deja-vu.
Somehow the whole project falls a little flat. Except for “Is it you,” which is based on the Prince and Princess theme in “Scheherazade,” the melodies do not compete with the best of the Borodin themes in “Kismet.” Some of the incidental music works to set a mood, but Warnick and Pahl were obviously hard put to find melodic material. And except for “Population,” the lyrics lack originality or wit.
Now for the virtues. Drake can take any mediocre song and make it sound good. Soprano Doretta Morrow plays no less than four parts so that all the interesting women Polo finds during his stay in the East have the same face. And at the end, expectation is thwarted. Character actor Ross Martin does a good job as the ruler of Tibet, making the most of a cardboard character.
The dance routines are not bad, considering the small area of the studio set. The timing of the show without the commercials is 80 minutes; and the commercials are actually added as bonus material. The picture is in Kinescope black and white, the sound a product of its time. Drake and Morrow make this required viewing for those interested in the history of musicals on television.
Note: Some time ago, the sound track of the musical numbers was released on a DRG CD. Take my word, the video is the way to go with “Marco Polo.”
An Early Telecast of “Yeomen of the Guard” is Preserved on DVD
One of the better releases in the VAI DVD series of vintage television productions of musicals is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” It is the team’s work that is closest to opera, it does not involve topsy-turvy situations, and the characters are fairly believable.
Part of the Max Liebman Presents series, this 1957 “Yeomen” was allowed 80 minutes of running time, the rest dedicated to commercials and station breaks, and therefore is by no means complete. (The missing commercials can be seen as an extra.) But it does keep quite a bit of the dialogue and score (a full performance would run a bit over two hours) and serves as a good introduction to the complete work.
A caveat at this point. The original telecast was in color; only a black and white copy was found. Also, the picture is a bit more wobbly than are other VAI discs in this series. But there is no other (as far as I can tell) decent video of “Yeomen” available to us, so this one is a valuable addition to the history of television and to G&S productions. (The one from BBC is simply bad.)
A synopsis of the plot would take up too much space here; but I want to comment that the so-called Happy Ending is quite different from those in the other G&S plays: two characters wind up engaged to the very people they hate and the main comic character (like Bunthorne in “Patience”) gets what he deserves.
Alfred Drake makes a very good if not overly subtle Jack Point the jester, while popular singer Bill Hayes looks and sounds good as the not very admirable Colonel Fairfax. Barbara Cook has an operatic voice that suits her role as Elsie, but Celeste Holm in her opening song sounds too Broadway-ish for the young Phoebe; but she can hold her own with Cook from that point on.
The show begins with some background information about the Tower of London, which might interest the audience. But a second introduction by Jack Point is utterly superfluous and the time could have been better spent with a stanza from at least one song that had been removed.
Other operettas in this VAI series are Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” and “The Dessert Song.” “The Chocolate Solider” stars Rise Stevens (a big plus) but does not follow the original in Acts II and III (a bad minus).