Every now and then, TV remembers one of its highest callings – to give us full-scale musicals.
Then it forgets again, sometimes for years. But now comes a spurt; there are three musicals in eight days, covering a rich range.
On Friday (Nov. 1), PBS has the relentlessly giddy “42nd Street.” The songs are peppy, the dancing is zesty and the story … well, no one tried to improve on the 1933 movie this is based on.
A week later, it has the exact opposite with “The King and I” (shown here). Once you get past the lush music and costumes, you have the serious story of a 19th-century despot.
And in between? ABC tries what producer Hamish Hamilton calls “an interesting hybrid.”
That’s Tuesday, Nov. 5, when the night will start with a live audience watching “The Little Mermaid,” the 1989 animated movie. When it’s time for a song, Hamilton told the Television Critics Association in August, “we will transition beautifully and smoothly into a world of live performance.”
It will be “Moana” star Auli’i Cravalho in the title role, joined by Queen Latifah, Shaggy, John Stamos and Graham Phillips. They’ll sing … then retreat until the next song.
The result could be great or awful, but should be interesting. For now, I’ll talk about the two musicals I have seen and then mention two more coming up:
“42nd Steet”: The 1933 movie was the simple tale of a chorus girl who becomes a star on opening night.
When it reached Broadway in 1980, it had zesty Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs (“We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby on Broaway,” the title song), snappy Gower Champion dance numbers … and that same, creaky/silly story. The cast managed to perform it “with a minimum of camp,” Stanley Green wrote in “Broadway Musicals” (Hal Leonard Corp., 1985).
If only that were true of this London production. Several of the performances are way too broad, leaving Clare Halse (as the chorus girl) to bring it back to humanity.
She’s a terrific singer/dancer/actress. There’s enough zip and zoom here to let us forget – sometimes — the shallowness at the show’s core.
“The King and I”: There’s nothing shallow or silly about this one.
Back in the 1860s, Anna Leonowens was the tutor for the wives and children of the king of Siam. Her memoir was fictonalized in a 1944 novel, a 1946 movie and this 1951 musical.
In “South Pacific,” Oscar Hammerstein had already shown an interest in culture-clash and biases. Now he created a show that empathized with both the king – despotism and all – and the Englishwoman.
Yes, there are great Rodgers-and-Hammerstein songs — “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance?” But Hammerstein’s book and lyrics are dead-serious.
At two hours and 40 minutes, this will tax modern audiences. Its 16-minute Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (“The Small House of Uncle Thomas”) is gorgeous, but an odd detour.
Complicating things further is Ken Watanabe’s thick accent. The show’s delicate balance is shattered when we don’t know what the king said.
Still, Kelli O’Hara is an elegant Anna and the co-stars are first-rate. “King and I” survives on lush visuals, good intentions and great music.
Beyond: On Nov. 12, the Disney Plus streaming service begins, including a show with a tangled title.
“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is a scripted show pretending to be a documentary. It follows teen-agers as they prepare for a production of “High School Musical.”
And PBS continues its string of Broadway-style productions. It has plays — “Red” and “Much Ado About Nothing” — on Nov. 15 and 22 – then closes its five-Friday string on Nov. 29 with the high-octane “Kinky Boots.”