The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
US Television 1956 and YouTube Autumn 2021
Another happy rediscovery from American television's Golden Age, this 1956 broadcast is a lightweight but thoroughly entertaining musical fable.
It does not advance the art form a millimetre, but it provides a vehicle for two attractive performers of different generations – Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews – and enjoyably fills a pleasant ninety minutes (minus adverts).
American playwright Maxwell Anderson's 1936 supernatural romance, which won awards at the time for its skilful blend of seriousness and fantasy, is here turned into a musical, with lyrics by Anderson and music by Arthur Schwartz.
Like the original it tells the story of the owner of a beautiful hill on New York's Hudson River, a man perfectly happy to work as little as possible and enjoy nature as much as possible. His more practical girlfriend wants him to sell the land to a mining company that will destroy it but make him rich.
But an encounter with the ghosts of seventeenth-century Dutch sailors and a beautiful passenger of theirs affects his decision in unexpected but dramatically satisfying ways.
Also present are the clownish mining company villains and some passing bank robbers, but the core of the play is the meeting and brief romance between man and ghost, and what both take away from it.
This is obviously fragile in the extreme, and in less adept and sensitive hands it could have been unbearably twee or heavy-handed and lumpen. Some critics of the period thought it fell over into the second category. It may be the passage of time or the quaintness of black-and-white TV, but today it is almost unblemished in its delicate charm.
Much of the credit must go to Bing Crosby, whose natural style of laid-back self-satisfaction perfectly fits the main character. Just the titles of the songs written for him – 'Living One Day At A Time,' 'A Little Love, A Little While' and the comic 'John Barleycorn' – make you able to imagine what his languid, unforced baritone does with them (and you'd be right.)
Julie Andrews (just about to open in My Fair Lady) is beautiful and has the ethereal quality the ghost woman requires, and of course sings angelically, be it the mournful 'Life Of A Sailor's Wife' or the regretful but reassuring 'Once Upon A Long Ago.'
In the non-singing role of the real live girl, Nancy Olson serves the play generously, while bearing a distracting resemblance of face and voice to Barbara Bel Geddes.
The comic villains stop short of unbearable clownishness, the ghostly sailors are thankfully restrained in their yo-ho-ho-ing, and the only thing that might give pause is Anderson's characteristic temptation toward self-consciously 'poetic' language. For fullest enjoyment, set your tolerance for lines like 'Look – the dawn points with one purple finger at a star to put it out.' on high.
There are two recordings of this show in YouTube's vaults. The longer one includes the period adverts, which are fascinating on their own for their leisurely soft-sell mode.
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