The Archive of American Television has launched an effort to present the historic broadcasts of the Omnibus series that offered cultural programming on many Sunday evenings between 1953 and 1961, hosted by the eloquent sophisticate Alistair Cooke.
The first release is of the seven episodes that featured an even more eloquent and sophisticated man of culture: Leonard Bernstein. His topics were widely dispersed but, as you might expect, all were musical. From Bach to jazz, opera to modern music, Bernstein took audiences into his confidence, sharing with them his excitement and his knowledge of the topic in such a way that the uninitiated learned and enjoyed and never felt belittled.
In his October 7, 1956 telecast American Musical Comedy, Bernstein starts with what makes the Broadway musical different from other forms of musical theater – how does it differ from opera? From vaudeville? From revue? He sketches the history of the development of the form starting with The Black Crook of 1866 when a stranded ballet troupe joined a struggling melodrama company. Bernstein even provides a song from that show (“Naughty Naughty Men”) which, if nothing else, demonstrates just how far the form had to progress to become what we love today.
Examples from shows from 1891’s A Trip To Chinatown, Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step, George Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!, Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate are performed (in brief snippets) by a cast of seven dancers and fourteen singers that includes Carol Burnett making her network television debut singing an Ethel Merman song from Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady. Some of the snippets seem a bit truncated, as does Mr. Bernstein’s presentation itself. Apparently, he was going on a bit too long for the time slot and there are interruptions, including a time when Alistair Cook walks on to enforce a commercial break. (It is too bad they didn’t include the commercial itself on the disc. That would have been more interesting now fifty four years later than it was then.)
In a fabulous combining of two act-one finales, Bernstein shows how elements work. With the cast flipping their costumes from the oh-so-American suits and dresses of Gershwin’s Of The I Sing to the Japanese Court dress of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, the similarities in structure make the Americanization of the genre clear. It is a highly entertaining way to learn the lesson.
As fascinating as Bernstein’s survey of the form is – and it is a tremendous introduction to the topic covering everything from the development of opera to the very moment of the telecast (which was made while he was preparing to open Candide on Broadway) – it is also amazing to hear him talk about how popular American Musical Comedy was at the time. He seemed genuinely intrigued that Broadway shows would dominate the breakfast table discussions of families all over the country. (How many breakfasts have you spent recently discussing In The Heights or Next to Normal with your children?)
Theater lovers might well wish that just disc two could be purchased separately (and at less cost) since that is the disc that includes the 76 minutes of Bernstein’s explanation of just what makes an American musical such a unique experience. However, the other three discs are well worth spending some time with. Indeed, Bernstein is even better when he’s explaining the concepts that make Beethoven’s fifth symphony so great or sharing his fascination for the music of Bach. Of all the Omnibus shows he did between 1954 and 1958, it was his 1955 installment, “The Art of Conducting” that was most personal, most revealing and most exciting.