The streets of America were eerily empty by 8:00 P.M. Eastern Standard Time on the night of March 31, 1957. Restaurants and neighborhood movie theaters were deserted; Times Square's spectacular neon signs flashed down on sidewalks that seemed utterly shorn of all pedestrians. It was as if the much-feared atomic bomb had hit, and the entire U.S. population had vanished.
The truth of the matter was far happier. At home were 107 million people (plus 8 million more in Canada) glued to their TV sets, watching one of the most eagerly anticipated events in television history: CBS's live, one-time-only performance of Cinderella. The original musical comedy had been created especially for the nascent medium by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Rodgers and Hammerstein names were already magic to most Americans, and now their latest score had been written as a vehicle for Broadway's real-life Cinderella, 21-year-old Julie Andrews, who had instantly ascended to stardom only one year before in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Andrews's irresistible soprano had already found its way into millions of homes across the country by way of My Fair Lady's original cast album, and now everyone outside of New York City was eager to see her for the first time.
The publicity buildup for Cinderella had been an enormous, exquisitely calibrated machine. From the moment the project was announced, a mere seven months before, the CBS marketing department went into overdrive, making sure Cinderella was kept first and foremost in the minds of the American public. Daily press releases, on-air promotions, interviews with its cast and creators, and frequent print ads spawned a relentless sense of public anticipation. A cast album was recorded several weeks before the telecast, to much fanfare, and was released in record stores in time to appear the day after the airing. Even Ed Sullivan stepped aside to allow Cinderella a chance to shine: It would pre-empt his show's regular airtime that Sunday night. And the week before, Sullivan welcomed Rodgers and Hammerstein on the show as special guests, and they presented one of the songs from the score. The few families in North America who owned color sets were in for a special treat, as Cinderella would be telecast in color‹a decided rarity at the time.
CBS had good reason to plan its own musical special. Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, had been a smash for NBC during the two previous seasons. By taking a bona fide Broadway hit and bringing it to TV with its star and cast intact, NBC had snagged that all-important prime-time family audience and that meant high viewer ratings. Rodgers and Hammerstein were long overdue for that kind of success. Although they were America's premier musical comedy creators, their two previous Broadway shows, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, had found little favor with critics or audiences and closed after brief runs. Having thus far resisted offers to create an original television musical, the two men finally felt that they had hit upon the right subject and the perfect star.
They surrounded Julie Andrews with a fine supporting cast of seasoned New York stage actors. Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney played the King and Queen, Ilka Chase the evil stepmother, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley the stepsisters. Edith (soon to be become "Edie") Adams was temporarily lured away from L'il Abner, where she was playing dumb-blonde Daisy Mae every night, to be Cinderella's impossibly chic Fairy Godmother. Rodgers and Hammerstein's original choice for Prince Charming was Vic Damone, but when they realized that the 5'8" Julie Andrews towered over him, that had to be rethought. A 25-year-old unknown, Jon Cypher (later of Hill Street Blues and Major Dad fame), was finally chosen. With his charm, good looks, appealing light baritone, and 6' 2" frame, he made an ideal Prince Charming. (To downplay Andrews's height, nearly all of the other men chosen for the 56-member company were over six feet as well.)
Although thrilled to be cast as the Fairy Godmother, Edie Adams went into the project with more than a few misgivings. Today she says: "When I first realized the sheer enormity of everything we were undertaking‹on live television!‹I thought we were going to have a train wreck the size of Cleveland. Everyone was worried‹the musicians were worried; the dancers were worried‹but I think I was the most worried of all. I thought, 'Oh my God, I hope they all know what they're getting into!' Well, everybody did know. They were all wonderfully capable."
Before the first rehearsal, Rodgers and Hammerstein assembled the entire cast and performed the score for them. "I don't think there was a single dry eye in the room," remembers Kaye Ballard. "Can you imagine? Hearing that glorious score and being in the presence of those two geniuses?"
Rehearsals began five weeks before airtime, on February 24, 1957. For the first three of those weeks, Julie Andrews was rehearsing during the day and performing My Fair Lady at night. The final two weeks of intensive rehearsals would be during her "vacation." From the beginning, it was decided that two entire full-dress run-throughs would be videotaped, so that any changes could be made and any potential problems avoided ahead of time. The first would be two weeks before the airdate, the second one week before, and they were dubbed "the New Haven and Boston tryouts" by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The company spent 98 hours in rehearsal halls before finally moving into CBS's Studio 72 on Broadway and 81st Street, a former neighborhood movie house that would serve as somewhat cramped quarters in which to stage such an epically scaled production. To conserve space in the basketball-court-sized playing area, set designers William and Jean Eckart emphasized verticality, attenuating their sets and stacking playing areas one atop the other by the ingenious use of various bridges, stairways, and balconies.
Rehearsals proceeded smoothly, with little tension aside from the looming airdate. Everyone fell in love with Julie Andrews, who would often make proper British tea for her fellow cast members. Jon Cypher remembers, "She was very warm, very sweet. But I remember rehearsing with her and thinking, 'She's good; she's all right; but not that great.' (What did I know? I was a 25-year-old kid from Flatbush!) Then, on the night of the telecast, it was as if she had turned on a light inside for the performance. There was that enormous glow, like something going on and coming through her eyes, through her face. It was incredible!"
The "New Haven and Boston" tryouts were useful tools that led to some much-needed fine-tuning, including changes in the wardrobes of Julie Andrews and Edie Adams, an effective reordering of the early numbers, and a toning-down of Andrews's performance so that it seemed less theatrical and better calibrated to television's more intimate demands.
Finally, March 31 arrived. Everyone had been so thoroughly prepared that the performance came off almost without a hitch. Only neophyte Jon Cypher had a few missteps‹literally‹when he managed to trip on-camera while running up a flight of stairs after Cinderella, and also when he came in too soon during one of his musical numbers. Such gaffes were barely noticeable to viewers, but Cypher was mortified. "I sat in my dressing room and cried for an hour afterward," he says today. "I thought I'd done a terrible job. I never got to see Cinderella until a few years ago, and, when I finally did, I said to myself, 'Hey‹I wasn't so bad after all.'"
Later, when the final viewership numbers were tallied, it was clear that Cinderella had garnered the single biggest audience in television history. In his book Rodgers & Hammerstein, Ethan Mordden writes: "It would have been enough warm bodies to sell out the Majestic Theatre at eight performances a week for a run of 214 years."
Today, when Julie Andrews reflects on the experience, she realizes what an amazing feat was accomplished. "One was just so busy doing in those days," she says, "getting on with one's life and one's career, keeping head down and nose to the grindstone, that it's only now, looking back on it, that I think, 'Wow! Wasn't that extraordinary?'"
Eric Myers has written for Opera News, Art and Auction, and the New York Times. His most recent book is Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis (Da Capo Press).
The original version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella will return to television for the first time in nearly 50 years when it is broadcast on PBS this December (check local listings), hosted by Julie Andrews, who will also host the premiere DVD edition, to be released in December from Image Entertainment.