BOOTLEG FILES 347: “Wonderful Town” (1958 TV production starring Rosalind Russell).
LAST SEEN: Not seen in its entirety since its original broadcast.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never officially released for home entertainment viewing.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Despite a pedigree that includes a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and an award-winning original production directed by the legendary George Abbott, “Wonderful Town” has never truly been embraced as a classic of American musical theater. The show’s drop into relative obscurity can be traced, in large part, to an uneven made-for-television production.
“Wonderful Town” was based on the 1940 play “My Sister Eileen,” which was made into a film in 1942. The plot involved the arrival of two sisters from Ohio – would-be writer Ruth and aspiring actress Eileen – in funky bohemian world of New York’s Greenwich Village. Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who wrote the play, returned to their material in 1953 with the hopes of making it into a Broadway musical. The involvement of Bernstein, Comden and Green gave the show a considerable amount of cred, but what “Wonderful Town” really needed was a star to sell it on Broadway.
As luck would have it, Rosalind Russell was available. Russell starred in the 1942 film and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Ruth. By the early 1950s, Russell’s film career was showing serious signs of sagging. A chance to score a comeback on Broadway in one of her most beloved roles was irresistible – even though Russell had no experience singing and dancing on stage.
Working alongside Russell was a bright and talented newcomer named Edie Adams. Her star was slowly rising as comedy foil on Ernie Kovacs’ wacky television show, but her success was cinched when she took the role of Eileen.
“Wonderful Town” was a smash hit, running 559 performances and winning Tony Awards for Best Musical and Russell. Logically, it would stand to reason that Hollywood would be interested in making a film of “Wonderful Town.” However, Columbia Pictures, which produced the 1942 “My Sister Eileen,” still owned the film rights to the Fields-Chodorov material. The studio, for no clear reason created its own musical based on the play: the 1955 “My Sister Eileen” starring Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon, with an original score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and choreography by a young Bob Fosse. Thus, “Wonderful Town” was shut out of the big screen treatment.
By 1958, however, CBS decided to brush off the material for the small screen treatment. Russell’s career was reaching a new peak that year with the release of the film “Auntie Mame,” and the network wanted to cash in on the star’s popularity. By this time, Adams was a star in her own right, from her Tony Award-winning work in Broadway’s “Li’l Abner” and her inventive clowning on television with Ernie Kovacs (whom she married in 1954). However, CBS opted to avoid the now-famous Adams in favor of Jacqueline McKeever, a Broadway performer who was unknown to television audiences. In a later interview with Playbill Magazine, Adams blamed Russell.
“I was supposed to be in it, but Roz saw to it that I wasn’t,” Adams said. “She was afraid I knew more than she did about television. I was crushed. I never forgave Roz. I didn’t speak to her for 10 years. I would’ve helped her.”
Actually, Adams didn’t realize how lucky she was. The television version of “Wonderful Town” turned out to be something of a mess.
For starters, the show’s main attraction was also its biggest liability – Russell was 51 years old when the show was broadcast, and she looked it. In her duets with McKeever, the women looked like mother and daughter instead of siblings. In her scenes with leading man Sydney Chaplin, Russell’s 19-year seniority is so pronounced that it was illogical to imagine the scenario where the boyish Chaplin had years of tough-edged big city experience while the sophisticated and matronly Russell was a raw kid from the sticks.
Furthermore, “Wonderful Town” was staged for live broadcast. But instead of adapting the show’s choreography for the unique confines of television, it was decided to simply restage the Broadway show and hope that the camera was close enough to capture the fun. It actually had the opposite effect – the show’s big numbers (the raucous “Conga” and hipster “Swing”) were erratically filmed without capturing the energy and eccentricities of the dancing.
Also, it was difficult not to acknowledge that the source material had grown more than a little stale. Even Billboard Magazine unhappily noted that the story “somehow seems a little naïve in 1958.” It didn’t help that although “Wonderful Town” takes place in the late 1930s, the costumes and hair designs for the program were strictly late 1950s.
“Wonderful Town” was broadcast live on November 30, 1958. It didn’t win any awards or high ratings, though CBS later put out a soundtrack album. The show then began to fade away from memory – the problematic TV version and tuneless score kept it from being a staple of musical theater. A 1960 sitcom called “My Sister Eileen” was created, but it died after one season. There was a 1986 revival in London’s West End, but New York audiences didn’t see the show again until a 2000 City Center “Encores!” concert performance and a 2003 Broadway production.
As for the CBS production, a kinescope of “Wonderful Town” was preserved and circulated among collectors of 16mm film. The visual quality isn’t that pristine, but at least the original (and unintentionally funny) commercials were kept in the print.
Music clearance rights would need to be addressed if anyone wanted to present this on DVD, but there doesn’t seem to be any great call for the material. Bootleg copies of “Wonderful Town” aren’t difficult to find, though there’s no great incentive for anyone to seek them out. If anything, the production confirms that even the best talents can come together and create a work of utter mediocrity.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!