“A dream is only a daydream at night” her Therapist reminds Magazine Editor “Liza Elliott” early on in the tele-play “Lady In The Dark”–a much hailed, long sought after gem from the TV’s “Golden Age” that has recently been released onto DVD by “Video Artists International” (V.A.I. Music).
In 1941, theater giants Playwright Moss Hart, Composer Kurt Weill and Lyricist Ira Gershwin came together to create a brave new kind of musical the likes of which the theater world had never experienced before; the resultant work was “Lady In The Dark”. With such a vast wealth of talent behind the scenes this one had to attain the highest heights—and attain them it most certainly did! Subsequently, on September 25, 1954 an equally ground-breaking television version was performed and broadcast live. Produced and directed by Max Liebman—considered to be “The Ziegfeld Of Television” renowned for his numerous musical “Spectaculars”, this rendering is still considered by many to be the definitive one—and a bona fide ‘prestige production’ for the NBC network. Initially aired in color via the then-newly developed RCA color-compatible system, this meant those TV’s with the system could view it in glorious color while those without (—formerly the vast majority of boxes then—) could still see it in black and white, which is how it was saved on Kinescope. Either way, this striking new DVD release makes for some genuinely fascinating viewing.
Long considered one of the most innovative musicals ever to be created for the theatre, “Lady In The Dark” was actually inspired by Hart’s personal experience with psychotherapy, and his pioneering concept was termed a “musical play”–not a ‘musical comedy’. The story centers around “Liza Elliott”; strong, unemotional and emancipated, she runs a successful women’s fashion magazine. After being proposed to by her Publisher-Boyfriend, “Kendall Nesbitt”, a solid and mature man whom she thought she wanted to marry, Liza finds herself instead, suddenly more attracted to “Randy Curtis”, a handsome Hollywood ‘he-man’ and matinée idol whom she meets during a photo-shoot for the publication. Overwhelmed at the thought of having to choose between them–or make any decisions, she turns instead to psychotherapy to aid her in coming to terms with her fears, which entails exploring some of her dreams and recollections. Throughout, story, script and songs blend so seamlessly one into the next making even the most outlandish turns appear completely natural (these are dreams after all, so anything can happen and we’re all the better entertained and enraptured when they do!) Moreover, Gershwin’s lyrics are some of the most vivid and smart to ever be written for the theater and Hart shrewdly chooses a half-remembered song (a common psychological trigger) from our heroine’s younger days to serve as a spring-board into scrutinizing the underlying events that occur both during and beyond her waking state. In spite of the festive trappings, “Lady In The Dark” dared to deal with more serious issues than few previous Broadway musicals had—this alone makes it unique, but it was also in its distinct construction and placement of its musical numbers that makes this truly unforgettable, presenting the main character’s “real life” as spoken drama, while her dream or memory sequences appear as long, extended musical numbers—frequently featuring songs within songs.
Occurring toward the end of scenes the first of these segments is a “glamourous dream” in which she imagines herself to be the most beautiful and famous woman in the world. In the second, she considers her impending marriage with anything but the expected outcome; then onto a “Circus Dream”, which turns into a Big-Top parody of a court room as she’s being brought to trial in order to ‘make up her mind’ (on the face of it) regarding her publication’s next cover shot. On a deeper level though, it’s really more about who she wants more to be– “The Executive or The Enchantress” (–the idea of a woman ‘having it all’ was still decades away!) Then again, this ‘all or nothing’ mentality—especially regarding women in business so prevalent throughout was simply par for the course in the 1940’s and ‘50’s; indeed this entire show is perhaps best—even fun–when regarded as a “Period Piece”, and is far more enjoyable when considered in light of the social values and mores during which it was first produced. Through these portions we discover that at heart, Liza secretly feels like a fraud just waiting to be ‘found out’—still another fairly universal anxiety Hart and company has tapped into. Finally, there’s a “Childhood Dream” (which is really more a recollection of pivotal past experiences from her childhood and adolescence.) Liza narrates this last part as her painful early remembrances are at last revealed–—predominantly one at a High School Graduation party where a boy broke her heart.
The pat, “feel good” ending may strike more modern perceptions as slightly simplistic when looked at through today’s greater comprehension of the human psyche, but for those days—and for this show, it works. It was just enough for audiences not used to decades of pop-psychology, to digest and understand. It’s similarly interesting to note that before this, Psychiatrists (or anyone involved with the mental health profession really,) were largely regarded with suspicion or were seen as crackpots themselves if not out-and-out villains, such as in the classic “Miracle On 34th Street”. “Lady In The Dark” helped change all that; in fact, the show proved revolutionary in the way it paved the way for more benevolent images of Psychiatrists and their work, in the larger media.
Adapted for television by William Friedberg and told in three “acts”, this presentation dispenses with the early dialogue scenes of the theatrical staging, instead cutting to the action almost immediately—an obvious acquiescence to the requirements TV audiences of the era had for their small-screen “Extravaganzas” such as this. Although several supporting characters may have become somewhat more ‘abbreviated’, overall, these little ‘re-constructions’ here and there help give this depiction a better flow and variety (at times) missing from larger stage interpretations. In addition, the first of Ms. Elliott’s “Dreams” which sees her as the most glamorous and celebrated woman in the world, has been divided into two parts, with part one literally starting the show.
Choreographed by Rod Alexander, the “Mapleton High Choral” number which on stage launches the second “dream”, is here omitted in favor of a vibrant and graceful wedding-themed ‘Pas-de-Deux’ ballet (performed by Alexander and his wife, Bambi Linn.) A staple in many of Liebman’s television undertakings (including the iconic “Your Show Of Shows”) here the pair even warrant full “Co-Star” status in the credits for their absolutely breath-taking terpsichorean contributions to the goings-on. They also shine leading “The Hobo Dance”—a new fancy-footed interlude created specifically for this offering that occurs during the initial “Glamour Dream” section.
In one of early television’s most sublime performances, Ann Sothern is nothing short of remarkable as “Liza Elliott”, the editor of “Allure” magazine and the “lady” of the title. This was a definite departure from her familiar roles as “Maisie” in a series of film comedies from several years earlier, or even “Susie” in the popular 50’s sitcom “Private Secretary”, and was most assuredly among her more glamorous! Her “Liza” is svelte, fashionable and outwardly poised and cool—not at all the tortured, repressed, hard-bitten business woman many previous dramatizations have made her out to be–and boy can this lady sing! Possessing an amazingly rich, expressive voice, she also has a formidable knack for pin-pointing just the right emotion for the right song, such as with the wide-eyed hopefulness of “This Is New” or the playful and buoyant “One Life To Live” wherein Liza croons to her throng of ‘dream admirers’ “If there’s a party, I want to be the host of it; if there’s a haunted house, I want to be the ghost of it; if I’m in town, I want to be the toast of it!” Later, she conveys exceptional style and demureness with her smooth delivery of “The Saga Of Jenny” before mixing in the appropriate touch of vulnerability to “My Ship”. Highlighting just how capable a dancer Sothern is as well, “Girl Of The Moment” has her cavorting in the midst of a reverential assemblage of street people while she herself is decked out in furs and a glitzy ‘haute couture’ gown. Part two of this episode provides another fresh opportunity for her to deliver still more magnificent moves as “Liza” prepares to have her portrait painted for use on a US Postage Stamp: “The President requests that for national security, for furtherance of good will and for the advancement of cultural and artistic achievement, your portrait be painted and your likeness be used on the new two-cent stamp!” sings a Marine Captain who looks strangely like Charlie Johnson; afterward the enthusiastic attendant crowd entreat “Of beauty untainted the portrait is painted—the portrait the nation awaits; Oh please sir, unveil it, and when can we mail it to friends in the 48 states?” As important as her songs and dances are however, each step of the way Ann keeps her audience involved and eager to learn how she will ultimately solve her problems.
James Daly also stands out as “Charlie Johnson” –the rascally (and by today’s standards” blatantly chauvinistic) ‘enfant-terrible’ Advertising Director of “Allure’; yet astute viewers might remember though, this was written to workplace standards of the 1940’s so his “bad boy” behavior would seem pretty much normal to audiences back then. “I’m ambitious,” he confides to Liza when confronted over their constant bickering; “I want to run this whole thing myself someday…and there isn’t a chance of that here. You married that desk long ago, Boss Lady, and you’re never going to get a divorce. I know your kind.” When she reacts with fury, he walks away sardonically breezing “Rage is a good substitute for sex, isn’t it?!” Despite all this, Daly makes his character extremely likeable which in turn makes the ending where Liza and he reassess their views of one another—professionally and maybe even personally that much more optimistic and believable. Luella Gear also does a fine job as the magazine’s Fashion Editor and Liza’s chief confidante, “Maggie Grant”: “I’m an older woman—I know what gives me indigestion now!” She casually informs Liza’s Secretary who gushes over meeting visiting Movie Star “Randy Curtis” (played with dashing sincerity by Robert Fortier); “Give it up dear—even if you could have it, it’s poison.”; “It’s a lovely way to die though,” the girl winks in reply. “Maggie” could be the fore-runner to every wise-cracking, acerbic maid, secretary, co-worker or neighbor that has since become a fixture of network sitcoms and the like.
Yet another key character is the magazine’s effusive Fashion-Photographer “Russell Paxton”—a portrayal which initially brought Danny Kaye terrific acclaim, and who is played in this telecast by Carlton Carpenter. “Russell” is widely considered to be the very first openly gay character in a musical, and Kaye particularly made sparks in the part—chiefly thanks to the song “Tchaikovsky” which has “Russell” (in the guise of Liza’s dream “Ring Master” presiding over all the “Pantaloon-atics” in the arena of her mind) rapidly reciting the tongue-twisting names of fifty Russian composers in just 39 seconds! The lyric is even listed in “The Guinness Book Of World Records”–counted in line with the most complicated ever written—let alone sung! Although a surprising amount of Russell’s original dialogue was retained here for this re-telling, Carpenter himself plays him as slightly more manic or charmingly ‘affected’ rather than anything overtly flamboyant (consider too, that these were the days when weekly viewers watched the likes of Liberace fully content with their illusion that he was completely hetero!) Either way, Carpenter’s vocal prowess has to be heard to be believed (and appreciated,) and happily, he’s more than up to the task for this and everything this role requires of him!
Praised at the time by “The New York Times” which wrote “It had vitality, it had mood, and it had illusion – all the way from start to finish”, this completely re-mastered production ‘will get you so you’re spell-bound’–so DO ‘make up your mind’ to check it out as soon as possible! Presented in Black & White, V.A.I.’s digitalized Kinescope transfer is largely pristine, with a running time of 79 minutes; likewise, adding to the authenticity of the over-all viewing experience, as “Oldsmobile” was the sponsor of the original airing, also included are the program’s introduction and closing by host Lee Bowman, along with several vintage commercials which promised “there’s a rocket for every pocket at Oldsmobile” (referring to the company’s power-packed “rocket engine” feature in many of their models.) For more information, or to order a copy of this newly restored and re-discovered masterpiece, log onto: www.VAIMusic.com .
Special Thanks To Foster Grimm And The Staff Of “Video Artists International” (www.VAIMusic.com) For All Their Kind Assistance In Making This Story Possible.