“Big Numbers on Small Screens: Early Television, Visual Style, and the Cultural Cachet of the Broadway Musical,” by Kelly Kessler

by Mike D'Errico on July 22, 2013

Throughout July, the IASPM-US website will be previewing articles from “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television,” the upcoming special issue of The Journal of Popular Music Studies. The following is excerpted from Kelly Kessler’s article, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way.”

From the earliest days of television, the schedule was filled with the faces, sounds, and stories of Broadway. The burgeoning industry turned to the familiar sounds of Porter, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein to create a uniquely televisual experience out of music that had underscored the lives of average Americans while standing just out of reach for those estranged from the twinkling lights of the Great White Way. Transferring the visual and performative grandiosity of Broadway onto millions of 12, 15, 17, and 24-inch—mostly black and white—screens proved to be a challenge. These small screen musicals would have to wrangle the magnificence of a 60-foot proscenium into something contained by a small electronic console. The range of performance styles embraced by these broadcasts reflects both the popularity and specialness of the musical stage and the networks’ exploration of the new medium’s aesthetic potential.

Through one-off specials and within the anthology drama format, big and small budget broadcasts tackled the challenge of small screen Broadway. Ethel Merman’s Best of Broadway production of Panama Hattie (CBS, 1954), Betty Hutton’s Max Liebman Presents original musical Satins and Spurs (NBC, 1954), and Mary Martin’s historic Producer’s Showcase version of Peter Pan (NBC, 1955, 1956) exemplify those early vehicles that sought to transform the living room into the perfect Broadway seat, even broadcasting in eye-popping color (despite the fact that by late 1954 only approximately ten thousand of the total three million American television sets in use could pick up color) (Wolters C1). Head of NBC programming Sylvester “Pat” Weaver claimed the network’s broadcast of Peter Pan would be like handing millions of Americans a $5.80 theatre ticket, while simultaneously providing views better than those possible in the actual Broadway theatre (Oliver NW12B).

Max Liebman Presents’ Satins and Spurs (NBC, 1954) 

A range of theatrical performances—often in variety shows or spectaculars—eschewed full-blown Broadway style for aesthetics more akin to clubs and concerts, as the general popularity of the music lent itself to a more presentational style. Because so much of the Broadway songbook had found nationwide popularity, songs did not need narrative contextualization. Decontextualized bits, bereft of theatrical settings and costumes, could provide a sense of performative intimacy and glamour—with a full focus on the living room visit by the Broadway star.  The Ford Fiftieth Anniversary Show (1953), airing simultaneously on CBS and NBC, exemplifies this through a nearly fifteen minute duet of Broadway hits and standards by the stage’s dueling divas, Merman and Martin. As the two grande dames of musical theatre stand side by side in their evening gowns crooning, clowning, and belting their medley of hits, they present American viewers with the familiarity of well-known songs alongside a rare glimpse into the personalities and performative ranges of two top Broadway divas. All the while, Merman and Martin embrace a mix of the urban glamour of New York and a club style perhaps more familiar to the broader populace.

Ethel Merman and Mary Martin on The Ford Fiftieth Anniversary Show (NBC & CBS, 1953)

The Colgate Comedy Hour Salutes George Abbott (NBC, 1955) runs the gamut of visual styles with staged numbers from Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ and The Pajama Game and club-like bits by Broadway leading man John Raitt.  It also embraces something between the two aforementioned styles. Russell Nype and Elaine Stritch’s performance of Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam uses costuming, staging, and camerawork to simultaneously evoke theatrical and concert performance. Notably the song had charted three times in 1950, with Merman and Dick Haymes, Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters, and Rosemary Clooney and Guy Mitchell.  In this televised version, Nype and Stritch appear in costume on a partial set—with couch, chair, table, and telephone—and after a few lines of dialogue burst into song. Although they perform and dress in a manner the play would have dictated, their repeated full-front positioning and formal dress, as well as choices made with regard to the camera’s focal distance, project concurrent theatrical and concert settings. They bring something for everyone: the ephemerality of the live theatre and the familiarity of the pop charts.

“I’m the First Girl in the Second Row” from Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ on The Colgate Comedy Hour Salutes George Abbott (NBC, 1955) 

“You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam on The Colgate Comedy Hour Salutes George Abbott (NBC, 1955)

For many, musical theatre was simply “music.” The shifting presentation of song underscores the networks’ awareness of this, as well as of the selling power of the magic of the theatre.  Underscoring the high stakes of translating the musical to the small screen, the described choices regarding visual and physical performances of the musical and its popular numbers underscore both CBS’s and NBC’s attempts to maximize appeal by communicating both the specialness and grandiosity of the Broadway stage and the general popularity of its songbook and stars.

Kelly Kessler is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. Her work engages primarily with issues of genre and gender in American media. Her book, Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity, and Mayhem, interrogates the shifting generic form of the post-studio system musical and its implications regarding issues of musical masculinity. Kessler’s work can also be found in various anthologies, as well as periodicals such as Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, and Television and New Media.

Works Cited

Oliver, Wayne. “‘$5.80 Ticket’ for Peter Pan: TV of Broadway Play Set Tomorrow.” Chicago Daily Tribune 6 Mar. 1955: NW12B. Print.

Wolters, Larry. “Satin and Spurs Color TV Hit in Black and White Note.” Chicago Daily Tribune 18 Sept. 1954: C1. Print.

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