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RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN CONQUER A NEW MEDIUM
By Thomas Hischak

By 1957, when "Cinderella" was broadcast, the partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was 14 years old and had produced hits in every medium. Of their seven Broadway collaborations up to that point, four had been blockbusters, and they had also found major success as stage producers with such hits as "I Remember Mama" and "Annie Get Your Gun." While neither man wrote directly for Tin Pan Alley, both had many top-selling songs and Hammerstein had even won an Oscar for "The Last Time I Saw Paris," his collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. In the 1930s each saw several of their stage musicals filmed, though rarely with success. But since the two had teamed up in 1943, popular movie versions of "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," and "The King and I" had been released. With their songs heard in theaters, in movie houses, in nightclubs, and on the radio, it seemed the only venue Rodgers and Hammerstein had not conquered was the newfangled medium of television.

Broadway musicals on television were not so rare in the 1950s. Several popular shows were condensed into 90-minute specials and featured Broadway stars, sometimes the original players. "Annie Get Your Gun," "Wonderful Town," "Anything Goes," and "Kiss Me, Kate" were among the stage hits to be featured on the tube in that decade. It was also usual for scenes from Broadway musicals to be performed on various variety shows, most memorably THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. In fact, it was during Sullivan's usual Sunday night time slot that "Cinderella" was first broadcast. An original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on television was such an event that the great showman himself praised the upcoming special on the Sunday before, and a musical number was presented as a preview to whet the appetites of the American public. Not that they needed much whetting. In 1954 General Foods had presented a salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein to celebrate the first 10 years of their collaboration; filled with scenes and songs from their stage hits and performed by the original stars, it received very high ratings. But nothing would top the 107 million viewers who tuned in to "Cinderella" on March 31, 1957. As Julie Andrews relates in her introduction to the GREAT PERFORMANCES presentation, someone told her that the musical she was starring in at the time, "My Fair Lady," would have to run 100 years to reach the number of people likely to see her on television that night. The figure was too modest. In reality, Andrews would have had to pack the large Majestic Theatre on Broadway for over 200 years to equal the numbers that "Cinderella" played to.

Although it only ran 90 minutes (with three commercial breaks) and contains only 10 songs (as opposed to the usual 14 to 16 in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical), "Cinderella" was as complicated and as ambitious as any of the team's Broadway efforts. The fact that it would be broadcast live did not force Hammerstein (who wrote the book as well as the lyrics) to simplify the tale or the production demands. The many locations could easily be created on stage with traditional scene changes, sets disappearing into the wings or up into the flies until needed. But the television broadcast demanded that all the sets remain throughout the show as cameras picked up the action in different parts of the studio. Adding a series of staircases gave the scenery variety, but caused other problems as the camera had to deal with height as well as different-sized rooms. The musical was rigorously rehearsed for weeks (Andrews took a hiatus from "My Fair Lady" to do the production), and the final broadcast was much like an opening night on Broadway.



Top banner photos: Jon Cypher as the Prince (CBS Photo Archives), a scene from the ball (Photofest), and Julie Andrews as Cinderella (CBS Photo Archives).

Ilka Chase, Kaye Ballard, and Alice Ghostley

Cinderella's stepmother (Ilka Chase) with her stepsisters, Portia (Kaye Ballard) and Joy (Alice Ghostley).

Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews took a short break from her role in "My Fair Lady" on Broadway to appear in this television broadcast.

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