I have to admit to being more than a little misty-eyed after finally getting a chance to watch the original, live 1956 musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, now on DVD. I had first seen the Rankin/Bass animated remake in 1978, then found the 1956 Columbia cast album and listened to it for 30 years, never expecting to actually see the live show itself -- unless maybe I got to visit the Paley Center and they had it in their library.
To my delighted amazement, Video Artists International located an astonishingly nice-looking kinescope (a 16mm film made off a TV screen) with surprisingly excellent sound considering the limitations of kinescope -- and that musical ound is largely due to a certified Disney Legend: Tutti Camarata.
Tutti was the conductor of this special 90-minute live presentation on The Alcoa Hour. His ear for acoustics surely influenced how distinct the instrumentation come across, even in this vintage kinescope. In 1956, Disneyland Records had just begun, with Tutti as artists and repertoire director. You can hear his style in The Stingiest Man in Town, as well as what was likely some arrangements by frequent Rankin/Bass musical director Maury Laws, whom Tutti told me could have likely done some chart work for the special (the soaring violins in "An Old Fashioned Christmas" are just like the ones Laws created for such Rankin/Bass specials as "Rudolph" and "Frosty").
You have to get a feel for the temporal context to fully appreciate how ambitious this live show truly was for its period. This was the day of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and other vaudeville-type live variety shows, as well as legendary live dramas on Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Walt Disney's filmed series was less then two years on the air, Mickey Mouse Club was in its second season and Howdy Doody was still an NBC staple.
Mary Martin's TV tradition of Peter Pan had begun a year earlier (as live shows until it was taped in 1960) and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella would premiere a year later (live with Julie Andrews, then taped in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren). I can't confirm this for sure, but that makes The Stingiest Man in Town very likely the first -- or at least one of the first -- original musicals created especially for television.
Director Dan Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, Sybil, Eleanor and Franklin) worked with in what appears to be a very limited space, with tight, elemental, movable sets. (Notice the clever transitions, such as Basil Rathbone sinking off camera in the graveyard while a "stand-in" hand grasps the tombstone, enabling Rathbone to race back to the bedroom set for his next scene.)
The cast, crew and orchestra clearly had a short rehearsal time to perform a show of this scope -- and that's what makes live TV so amazing. The cast, orchestra and chorus are right there, and if the singer misses a cue or changes tempo, the accompaniment has to keep up. Keeping all of this in mind, what unfolds is a remarkable achievement that was largely forgotten for decades, unless you happened to have the cast LP -- or the superb CD reissue also on amazon.
Young audiences may not sit still, at first, for the black-and-white, low-def, leisurely paced kinescope experience of the original Stingiest Man in Town -- more akin to a filmed stage show than a modern recorded and edited production. But if you can impress upon them the importance of these programs, how they paved the way for what we take for granted today (especially technical advances) and just enjoy the pure talent involved, they may find themselves beguiled.
These are some of the greatest Broadway and opera talents of their day, top popular singers and of course, the great Rathbone, with Fred Spielman and Janice Torre's truly memorable musical score, conducted by one of the most respected names in the music industry.
It might be fun if you watch this along with the Rankin/Bass animated remake (available in the 2008 "Classic Christmas Favorites" DVD box set on amazon) and listen to the cast album. In an ocean of Dickens Christmas Carol adaptations, this particular version is one of the all-time finest.