BootLeg Betty

On Television, Bits Of Broadway

Mister D: What about Gypsy???

New York Times
On TV, Taking Broadway in Small Doses
January 19, 2012

WHATEVER happens with NBC’s “Smash,” theater lovers who also watch television are going to enjoy a feast of backstage and onstage dramatics. And that has been a rarity on the small screen.

In the beginning, there was “The Ed Sullivan Show” (1948-71). It was always presenting big musical numbers performed live by stars of a current production (like Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in “Camelot”). On the quiz show “What’s My Line?” (1950-67), glamorous panelists had New York theater connections, while celebrity mystery guests were often in town to do something onstage. The panelists would usually figure out the guests’ identities because they knew what was opening soon.

Since then the world of New York theater, on and off Broadway, has been a relatively minor player in prime time. And its reputation hasn’t been particularly burnished. But the stage does occasionally make an appearance in fictional small-screen worlds:

I LOVE LUCY It wasn’t that the Ricardos and the Mertzes went to the theater all that often. (They did see Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical “The Most Happy Fella.”) It was more that the show’s writers assumed a nationwide knowledge of musicals. In a Hollywood episode Lucy tried to impress a studio executive with a hint about a Broadway offer from “Oscar and Dick.” Apparently you didn’t need to tell a 1950s TV audience that she meant Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers. Back in New York, when Lucy lied about her show business experience, claiming to have appeared on Broadway in “Oklahoma!,” her friend asked: “What was your maiden name? Alfred Drake?” That joke required viewers to know about a hit musical already a decade past.

SEINFELD Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom about hardened single New Yorkers touched on theater here and there. George was criticized for buying Jerry “Guys and Dolls” tickets for his birthday. Kramer was accidentally given a Tony Award when he got a job as a seat filler at the ceremony. Bette Midler guest-starred as herself in the fictional “Rochelle, Rochelle: The Musical.” George couldn’t get the song “Master of the House” from “Les Misérables” out of his head.

THE NANNY In the 1990s an actual hit network sitcom included a person working in Broadway theater as a leading character: Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), a Broadway producer. Maxwell was handsome, charming and British, but his career made him a comic figure. He was ridiculed for having passed up the chance to produce “Cats” and for holding a grudge against Andrew Lloyd Webber. He had a town house, a butler and a limousine, but family money, not theater success, appeared to pay for it. Famous people like Elizabeth Taylor and Ben Vereen dropped by the home office, but theater seemed a sinister business. In one episode a piggish garbage magnate (Wallace Shawn) would invest in the next show only if a particular female character would sleep with him. “No chick, no check,” he says.

The relative value of the stage versus screen was spelled out in an episode in which the Sheffield family visited a Hollywood movie studio. When the title character (Fran Drescher) told a security guard that Max was “a big-time producer,” the guard whipped out his head shot. But when it’s explained that Maxwell produces Broadway, the guard snatches the photograph back, and with good reason: “These cost a buck fifty each.”

GLEE Then came “Glee,” the Fox series credited with making prime time safe for musical theater. But its singing, dancing, stage-struck teenagers don’t seem all that well informed. On a New York trip Rachel bought “Cats” tickets from a scalper, not realizing that the show had closed more than a decade ago. On the other hand, Rachel and Kurt managed to get into the Gershwin Theater, where “Wicked” is playing, stand on the stage and sing the character Elphaba’s lament “For Good.” The original Elphaba, Idina Menzel, has a recurring role on the show as Rachel’s birth mother. But she’s not the only theater-world notable to appear: Kristin Chenoweth, Cheyenne Jackson and Neil Patrick Harris have guest-starred as well.

SOUTH PARK In 2011, presumably inspired by their conquest of Broadway with “The Book of Mormon,” the creators of “South Park” came up with the theater episode to top all theater episodes. Randy Marsh (Stan’s dad) and his wife go on a New York theater blitz, illustrated by the marquees of “Anything Goes,” “Sister Act” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Randy declares, “Broadway is simply the greatest time a dude can have.” The catch is that Broadway theater is exposed as a heterosexual male plot, delivering a very specific sexual subliminal message to the women in the audience. But give the series credit: this is probably the only time any of us will see an animated Stephen Sondheim knocking back a few beers at a Hooters.

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