THE DVD SHELF: Vintage TV Musicals "Marco Polo" and "Babes in Toyland," Plus "The Quiet Man"

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10 Mar 2013

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This month's column screens two early television musicals — Alfred Drake as "Marco Polo" and Jo Sullivan or Barbara Cook as "Babes in Toyland" (though not together) — plus the 1952 Oscar-winner, "The Quiet Man."


From the archives of early television producer Max Liebman come two different Broadway-related specials from the mid-1950s, brought to us by Video Artists International (VAI). Neither are altogether successful, or even halfway successful. Both, though, offer things to watch.

Marco Polo, from 1956, is an example of a doomed attempt to reproduce an earlier success. In 1953, Alfred Drake had starred on Broadway in Kismet, subtitled "A Musical Arabian Night." This came with songs adapted from themes by Alexander Borodin (1833-87), one a group of Russian Nationalist composers — sometimes referred to as "The Mighty Handful" or "The Five" — who worked in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, attempting to write symphonic music that sounded more Russian than European. Kismet was a general crowd-pleaser although classicists could, and did, carp.

Three years later, Liebman and/or Drake came up with "Marco Polo," loosely based on the tale of the 13th-century Venetian merchant. This time they took tunes from another of The Five, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). The Kismet flavor was extended to the setting (which included the Near East and Far East), the musical setting, and the presence of both Drake and his Kismet costar, Doretta Morrow.

All of which might have provided a colorful hour-and-a-half. But there was a big problem. Rimsky-Korsakov was a fine composer, with an arguably stronger output than Borodin. (R-K's "Scheherazade" and "Capriccio Espagnol" remain justly popular.) But Kismet had Robert Wright and George Forrest, contemporary songwriters who specialized in taking themes from the classics and adapting them into show tunes. "Marco Polo" had Liebman's in-house arrangers Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl, who did not have the Wright & Forrest touch. (Warnick, for what it's worth, was an accomplished Broadway vocal arranger with over 20 musicals to his credit, in many cases working with Don Walker, Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter, Coleman & Leigh's Little Me, and Donnybrook! among them.)

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