Peabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical


A-Broadway MusicalsPeabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical

   The much admired Teaching Company has several CD and DVD sets about classical music. However, they are all bested by “Great American Music: Broadway Musicals” on four DVDs. (The course number is 7318.) The instructor is Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute and a mighty fine teacher is he.

The 16 topics of 45 minutes each cover popular stage musicals from the Minstrel Shows that set the foundation, right through the Reviews and Book Musicals, and up to the “present,” which was 2006 when these talks were recorded.

messengerMessenger is a double threat to all competition. First, he is a fine speaker with a good sense of humor, and he never talks down to his audience. Second, he is an excellent pianist who can illustrate a musical point simply and clearly (although his singing does not quite meet the level of his other talents).

His opening talk, “The Essence of the Musical,” prepares us for all that is to come. While apologizing for “The Minstrel Era,” he does point out the benefits those shows afforded to black artists who never would have otherwise attracted such large white audiences. The tale of the rise and downfall of two composers, one white and one black, is heartbreaking.

“The Evolution of the Verse/Chorus Song” explains the nature of all the popular songs that use a verse to set up the situation and a chorus that is repeated often enough so that the audience can join in.

“The Ragtime Years,” “The Vaudeville Era” and “Tin Pan Alley” continue to follow the fortunes of popular songs with respect to their formats and performances by different artists, many of whom are heard in vintage recordings.

Broadway a long time ago

Later on, special attention is given to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, who are contrasted; George Gershwin; and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter two ruled over the “Golden Age of Musical Theater (1950s)”; but even they could not withstand the new sounds when “Rock ‘n’ Roll Reaches Broadway.”

The last talk is about “Big Bucks and Long Runs,” a title that speaks for itself.

The PBS stations have recently rerun a series about Broadway Musicals with all sorts of Big Star commentators and spectacular videos. Messenger does it all and does it better with a podium and a piano. I have watched this set three times and heard it as many on my car tape player and now my iPod. I cannot recommend it too highly

Broadway and British Musicals

One Touch of Venus

A Vintage TV Version of a Rarely Done Musical

A-VAI-One Touch of VenusAfter an initial run of 567 performances in 1943, “One Touch of Venus” more or less faded into semi-obscurity. With a score by Kurt Weill, a book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, and lyrics by Nash, it tells the tale of a statue of the goddess Venus coming to life and falling in love with a barber when he jokingly slips a ring around her finger.

Other than for “Speak low,” I was utterly unfamiliar with this show until dear old VAI added it to its DVD collection of televised Broadway musicals from the 1950s; and it represents the only fairly complete video version of “One Touch of Venus” to date. (The 1948 film with Ava Gardner keeps very few of the original songs, while this 1955 telecast keeps 10 of them plus two ballet sequences—and all in 73 minutes.) I read that bits of dialogue have been updated to 1955, but on the whole, this performance is a faithful abridgement of the original production.

In the role created by Mary Martin, Janet Blair makes a lovely Venus with a singing voice not heard very much, if at all, in her films. George Gaynes as Whitelaw Savory is a wooden actor but not a bad vocalist, while the nerdy barber Rodney Hatch is more than adequately played by Russell Nype.

Candy is dandy but Nash wrote the lyrics

Others in the cast are two comic figures Taxi Black and Stanley (Mort Marshall and Iggie Wolfington), Hatch’s bad tempered fiancée Gloria (Mildred Trares), and Whitelaw’s faithful secretary Molly (Laurel Shelby). No, none of these names, other than Blair’s, are familiar to me—and I was an ardent TV viewer back then. But these VAI restorations are living history as well as superior entertainment.

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Kurt Weill

Now truth to tell, I was never much of an admirer of Weill’s music, and I don’t think much of his score for this show (“Speak low” excepted). But Nash’s lyrics are clever and often intelligent (this was his only shot at a Broadway musical), and the book he created with Perelman is amusing at best without being believable at any moment.

The picture on this VAI DVD is quite good and a bonus feature shows the original commercials—if that is one’s idea of a good time.

Other musicals in this VAI series are “Kiss Me Kate,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “Dearest Enemy,” and “Bloomer Girl.” See for a complete list.

Broadway and British Musicals

Dearest Enemy

“Dearest Enemy””Dearest Enemy” Retells Revolutionary Legend

A-VAI-Dearest Enemy

My deep thanks  yet again to Video Artists International (VAI) for preserving on DVD musical comedies that were seen on television back in the 1950s. Since they remain in their catalogue, I should repeat my original reviews at least once a year for the sake of new readers.

Looking at the VAI website, I see that 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 have been reporting on new entries in this series as they appear.

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.

download (2)“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.


Cornelia Otis Skinner in post-Colonial days

The cast has Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray, who became a legend when she delayed General Howe from surprising 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 was 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.

And of course one can see the future hit tunes of Rodgers and Hart developing in this early collaboration, although it is still a far cry from their tradition-breaking “Pal Joey.”