Thursday, July 20, 2017

Theatre on television

Theater on television—that is, the presentation of a play or musical on a stage live (or enacted as if live)—has made a small comeback lately with the live extravaganzas of The Sound of Music and Grease and The Wiz. Those who care about such things will usually say that the 1950s was the "golden age" for this kind of programming, with shows like Playhouse 90 and Lux Video Theatre broadcasting such shows every week. But, although those regular series were gone by the early 60s, this baby boomer remembers seeing several such specials aired under a variety of titles (mostly Hallmark Hall of Fame but also ABC's Stage ‘67 and occasionally as a Movie of the Week). These shows don’t get rerun anymore and for the most part have not been issued on home video, but I recently had the good fortune to find prints of two of these specials on the Internet.

I've been hunting for a copy of the 1967 CBS broadcast of The Crucible for years. Starring George C. Scott and Coleen Dewhurst (at the time, real-life husband and wife) as the Proctors, I saw this on its original airing (I was 11) and never forgot it. A recent viewing of the Daniel Day-Lewis version from the 90s triggered another round of searching and this time I was able to stream it. On the surface, the play is about the Salem witch trial hysteria of 1692, triggered by the antics of a group of teenage girls and spread by fear and by religious and political posturing, and the trials' effects on the good but flawed John Proctor and his wife. The 1996 film opens up the play to good effect but Day-Lewis' performance is oddly tamped down—though Winona Ryder is very good as Abagail, the disturbed young woman at the center of the supposed witchery.

The 1967 version highlights the highs and lows of live play presentation. (A note about my use of "live": most of these shows in the 60s were not broadcast live, but were taped live; major errors could be reshot but small mistakes sometimes were left in. For all intents and purposes, individual scenes were taped live, though it might take several days to shoot the entire play.) Performances gain power from uninterrupted takes, usually with the use of multiple cameras, and the entire cast here is quite good, from Scott and Dewhurst, to Melvyn Douglas, Fritz Weaver, Will Geer and Henry Jones, and Tuesday Weld (pictured above with Scott) is especially good as Abagail. Sets were more elaborate in a TV production than they would have been on stage, since they had a whole studio in which to roam. One minus of a production like this is the amount of close-ups, which I find to be distracting, especially in the middle of an emotional scene. There is typically no such thing as a close-up on stage, so it feels strange to be watching a scene of several people interacting, shot essentially from an audience point of view, and suddenly get a close-up on one actor. Scott in particular, being a strong "force of nature" type, does not necessarily benefit from these close-ups—we're too close to all that bluster and emotion. Still, this is a powerful presentation of the play, probably the next best thing to seeing it live; even though the 90s movie is fine, this production is better at getting across the immediacy of the performances, and the emotional impact of the incidents.

Of Thee I Sing, originally produced on stage in 1933, was the first  musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and, somewhat oddly, has never been filmed—word is that the Marx Brothers were going to tackle it and decided not to; while it certainly would have been fun, I'm sure it would have wound up nothing like the stage production. It seems to be rarely revived, partly because it's political satire, and much of that genre dates badly. But this CBS-TV production from 1972 holds up well, perhaps in part because much has been cut from the original, since the show runs only 75 minutes. The plot: an unnamed political party runs an unknown named John P. Wintergreen for president; his running mate, Alexander Throttlebottom, is so nondescript than no one in the party, not even Wintergreen, ever remembers who he is. The unmarried Wintergreen runs on a "love" platform and the party holds a contest to find him a wife. But after a winner is announced, Wintergreen realizes he's in love with his secretary and marries her. He's elected president, but the angry rebuffed winner of the contest makes trouble for him and the party.

The pleasures here aren’t so much in the plot (the comic jabs feel very mild compared with the kind of political satire we've had in pop culture since the 60s) but in the performances. Carroll O’Connor doesn't deviate too much from the mannerisms of his well-known Archie Bunker character, but he holds the play together and he sings surprisingly well. Also worth watching are Cloris Leachman as his wife, Jack Gilford as Throttlebottom, and Jim Backus, David Doyle and Jesse White as various political figures. The musical was filmed on a stage before a live audience, and that energy helps the play. Unlike The Crucible, there are not many close-ups, with the camera often shooting from the vantage point of the middle of the front row, and that works well.  Watching these made me miss the days of such theatrical TV productions; last year, Broadway HD broadcast a live performance of She Loves Me directly from its Broadway house, and that was pulled off expertly. The recent live Sound of Music and The Wiz were fun but seemed a bit airless as they were not performed before a live audience. Hairspray and Grease did have audiences for at least some of their scenes, but being shot across several soundstages at a movie studio, they felt gimmicky. It's too bad that this kind of programming is so scarce today. Here’s hoping I can run across more of these 60s and 70s goodies in the ether.

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