By today’s standards, it is almost impossible to conceive. The broadcast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Julie Andrews on CBS-TV, March 31, 1957, was seen by the largest audience in the history of the planet at the time: 107 million people in the USA, representing 60 percent of the country’s population at that time, and another 10 million or so stretching from Canada to Cuba. It was an Event, a golden moment in the Golden Age of television. In an era when Broadway still commanded attention, this was a Broadway-caliber musical by Broadway’s most successful duo, starring Broadway’s brightest new talent. Broadcast night was opening night, and everyone in America was invited to attend.
In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before the precocious art of television would look to Broadway plays and musicals to help feed its voracious appetite for wholesome yet sophisticated entertainment. Throughout the 1950s, vintage Broadway titles, including Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, and two early Rodgers and Hart shows (Dearest Enemy and A Connecticut Yankee showed up on the small screen. In 1955, NBC broadcast the Broadway musical version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin; it was a sensation—and quickly rebroadcast—and the network wanted more. Richard Rodgers had given NBC a success a few years earlier with his Emmy Award-winning score for the World War II documentary series, Victory at Sea. Now NBC wanted to know if Rodgers and Hammerstein would do something that had never been done before: write an original musical, a family musical, expressly for television.
The team was intrigued; the fact that this would be their first foray into television only whetted their appetite for challenge. "Some people said we stayed out of TV so long because we didn't like the medium," Hammerstein told TV Guide. "That isn’t true. It was simply a question of finding something exciting to do and then finding a way to do it."
In considering NBC’s criteria, R&H settled on the fairy tale of Cinderella. Not sure how to navigate some of the network’s requirements, however, they sought the advice of an old friend, Richard Lewine, who was at the time serving as Vice President in charge of color television for rival CBS. (In 1980, following the death of Richard Rodgers, Lewine would run the R&H office for a transitional period.) Lewine told R&H that CBS was looking to land a "television spectacular" of its own; the network even had a talented newcomer signed to them for this purpose—Julie Andrews, who was then appearing on Broadway in an Edwardian Cinderella tale, My Fair Lady She would be ideal. "What sold us immediately was the chance to work with Julie," recalled Rodgers in his autobiography. "It was right from the start."
NBC was out, CBS was in. This would be a "package deal": R&H would write the show and own it, CBS would air it and have the option of a second broadcast. Line items that would have been standard in a Broadway budget—casting, costumes, scenery, direction, choreography—were the responsibility of R&H. Those elements unique to television—cameras, lights, sound and technical equipment, national promotion, studio facilities—would be taken care of by CBS.
R&H had already begun writing Cinderella when CBS announced the project on September 5, 1956. In the Saturday Review, Hammerstein talked about how the team approached the material: "We want the kids who see it to recognize the story they know. Children can be very critical on that score. But, of course, their parents will be watching too, so we have tried to humanize the characters without altering the familiar plot structure." The score was mapped out efficiently, and early.
"Deciding who would say what and who would sing what took us a few days," Hammerstein told TV Guide. "We blueprinted the action, then we began writing." One early memorandum from Hammerstein indicates several sequences and song ideas that did not make it to the final version, including "Tirade," for the Stepmother; "I’m On My Way," for Cinderella and her Godmother en route to the Ball; "The Prince is in a Dither," for the men’s chorus; and "I Have a Feeling," a love song for the two romantic leads.
Cinderella was written for the unique parameters of event television (in this case, a 90-minute program with six commercial breaks), so the action, songs and dances were meticulously crafted to fit into half a dozen separate acts. "It takes a year to write a Broadway show," Hammerstein told Time Magazine, adding, "It took me seven months to write the book and lyrics for Cinderella."
A working script was completed just in time for the start of rehearsals on February 21, 1957. The director for Cinderella was Ralph Nelson, already an old hand in this young field; the previous year he had won an Emmy directing Requiem for a Heavyweight. The dance sequences were staged by Jonathan Lucas, who had, in earlier seasons, choreographed for The Milton Berle Show. In the music department: Rodgers’ old friend Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated Cinderella, and CBS’ Alfredo Antonini was hired to conduct. Richard Lewine was on board officially as well, serving as producer while the sets and costumes were from Broadway’s husband and wife team of William and Jean Eckart, with lighting by Robert Barry.
It was Julie Andrews’ commitment to My Fair Lady (she still managed to do eight shows a week there during most of the Cinderella rehearsal process) that kept Cinderella in New York, and it was her talent that set the standard for the Broadway-caliber company surrounding her: Ilka Chase as the Stepmother; Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as the Stepsisters, Edie Adams as the Fairy Godmother and a handsome unknown, Jon Cypher, as the Prince. To play the King and Queen, a pair of Broadway royalty: the husband and wife team of Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney.
With Cinderella, R&H braced themselves for the strange world of television by pretending they were still on familiar ground. "You know," Rodgers told the Saturday Review, "we’re doing it as much like a stage show as possible." In Time Magazine, Hammerstein reflected, "TV's easier than theater because it’s very intimate, very fluid. You have dissolves, quick cuts and no exit problems. Being ignorant of the medium," he added, "I wrote this show on the assumption we could do anything and nothing has been refused me yet."
From the mammoth studios of the CBS headquarters on West 57 Street, where rehearsals began, the Cinderella company moved to its actual broadcast studio in early March. CBS Color Studio 72 at Broadway and 81st Street was, at the time, the smallest color studio in the CBS empire, but the best option in New York. For three weeks leading up to the March 31 broadcast, it was a scene of frantic activity—a combination of My Favorite Year and A Night at the Opera.
Packed into the cramped, 4,200-foot space were 56 performers, 33 musicians, and 80 stagehands and TV crew. Providing a hair-raising obstacle course at all times were four giant RCA color cameras, racks loaded with up to 100 costumes, over half a dozen huge set pieces, and loads of props (some of them rigged with special effects). The actors were instructed to maneuver with caution, and the musicians were sequestered in a tiny room that required a specially-devised echo chamber to overcome the suppressed acoustics. Every inch counted: even Cinderella’s live mice got too big during rehearsals and had to be replaced by broadcast night.
Added to the frenzy was pressure: CBS had a lot riding on this one, including prestige (a competitive desire to surpass the high mark set by NBC with Peter Pan) and money (over $370,000 was spent on Cinderella—more than double the sum usually spent on a TV production at that time). Taking no chances, the network rolled out the largest PR and marketing campaign America had ever seen, ensuring that every newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV outlet in the country knew about Cinderella. In addition to CBS, the two proud sponsors of Cinderella—Pepsi-Cola and Shulton, makers of Old Spice—undertook lavish promotions of their own. In a final, pre-broadcast flourish, Pepsi printed up 5 million comic books based on Cinderella, and shipped them out with six-packs of soda.
Along with their stars, Rodgers and Hammerstein gave a series of high-profile interviews, and appeared in TV featurettes promoting the telecast. In perhaps the biggest PR coup of all, the duo appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show exactly one week before the Cinderella broadcast. There, as Hammerstein recited the lyric, Rodgers led the Sullivan orchestra in the first broadcast rendition of "Do I love You Because You’re Beautiful?."
Promoting the Cinderella songs was of great importance to R&H, since they wanted to be sure that their songs from this score be given as much chance to succeed as had the big hits from their Broadway shows. Rodgers: "It takes time for the public to become accustomed to songs and to like them. If we had to depend on one performance of Oklahoma! or South Pacific to put the music across, it would have been pretty tough."
So the team took no chances. In early March, Julie Andrews recorded six songs from Cinderella for a special disc that was sent to an extensive list of TV news editors and radio disc jockeys. Another album of four songs from the score, covered by Vic Damone, Peggy King and Paul Weston’s Orchestra, was released exactly four weeks before air date. And finally, on March 19, in the midst of rehearsals, the entire Cinderella company dashed over to the Columbia Record Studios to make an original cast album. Produced by the venerable Goddard Lieberson, the Cinderella album was in stores on April 1, the morning after the broadcast.
Keeping to their "it’s just like a Broadway musical" mantra, the creative team put the cast and TV crew through several full-length run-throughs that would serve the same purpose as an out-of-town tryout—albeit one without a live audience, but still giving the creatives a chance to see what worked, and what didn’t. Three entire performances were filmed and analyzed; the first two, dubbed "New Haven" and "Boston," led to some key changes in costuming, wigs, line readings, and the repositioning of the opening number. The third filming was a strict record of the hoped-for final product, available to the CBS technicians as back-up if anything went wrong during the live broadcast. (One traditional form of coverage was dismissed by these men with nerves of steel, however: understudies. "If Julie can’t make the show," Rodgers blithely told TV Guide, "then neither can we.")
Finally, it was air date: Sunday, March 31, 1957. Starting at 8 PM, Cinderella was broadcast live in Eastern, Central, and Mountain standard time in both monochrome and compatible color; the West Coast received a delayed broadcast starting at 8 PM local time, a videotape format that was transmitted in black and white. Beyond the United States, Cinderella was carried by CBS syndicated affiliates in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. territories of Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
The ratings, based on the "Trendex Survey" in use at the time, were astonishing then, and almost incomprehensible today. According to Variety, the 107 million American viewers for Cinderella, factored into the number of televisions then known to be in existence, indicated that 24.2 million households were tuned in that night, with an average of 4.43 viewers for each set. Jon Cypher later recalled heading out of Studio 72 on that cold early spring night, a few minutes alter the broadcast had ended, and finding the streets deserted. No one was out; everyone had stayed in, huddled around their TV sets.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the audience of 107 million for a single-network event was the largest in U.S. history until Super Bowl XLV in January 2011.
The '57 Cinderella aired 14 years to the day of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first opening on Broadway, Oklahoma!, and the comparative statistics were not lost on the composer; as he later recounted, a Broadway run of Cinderella could only have equalled its initial TV audience if it played eight sold-out performances a week, every week, for 140 years!
A few weeks after the broadcast, Hammerstein revealed to Variety that he and Rodgers were planning on expanding Cinderella into a full-fledged Broadway musical. It never came to pass, though the team stayed with the Cinderella theme for their next and final two works: Mei-Li of Flower Drum Song and Maria of The Sound of Music both make the rags-to-riches journey, and each one finds true love with her personal Prince.
Though Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't bring it to Broadway themselves, Cinderella made an easy transition to the stage. The London Coliseum in England had the honor of performing it live for the first time, with a 1958 holiday pantomime adaptation that also used songs from Me & Juliet In the U.S., Cinderella began appearing onstage as early as 1961. With its stage success on track, CBS wanted to bring Cinderella back to television. The 1957 premiere had been phenomenally successful, but in the days before video tape it was doomed to one performance only. In 1965 CBS re-staged Cinderella, with Richard Rodgers serving as Executive Producer. While Joseph Schrank was brought in to revise the teleplay, the score remained intact, with the addition of a solo for the Prince, "Loneliness of Evening" (a ballad originally written for, and cut from, South Pacificin 1949).
The '65 Cinderella featured a cast as remarkable as the original: Ginger Rogers and Walter Pidgeon played the King and Queen; Oklahoma!'s original Ado Annie, Celeste Holm, played the Fairy Godmother; Jo Van Fleet was the Stepmother with Pat Carroll and Barbara Ruick as her daughters; and Stuart Damon played the Prince. A young Broadway star-to-be, Lesley Ann Warren, played Cinderella. Taped for broadcast, this Cinderella premiered on February 22, 1965, and was shown on CBS eight more times through February of 1974.
Yet another television remake of Cinderella was prepared for a broadcast premiere on ABCs "The Wonderful World of Disney," November 2, 1997. Its dazzling all-star cast included Whitney Houston as The Fairy Godmother, singing and TV sensation Brandy in the title role, Bernadette Peters as the Wicked Stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg as The Queen, Victor Garber as The King, newcomer Paolo Montalban (plucked from the Broadway cast of The King and I) as The Prince, and Jason Alexander as his Steward.
Budgeted at more than $12 million, this spectacular new production also boasted several songs new to Cinderella—Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love with Love," as advice from the Stepmother to her daughters; "The Sweetest Sounds," a number from Rodgers' solo Broadway score, No Strings, sung here by Cinderella and the Prince; "The Prince is Giving a Ball," revised as a production number merging stanzas from the Steward's song "Your Majesties" with additional lyrics by Fred Ebb; and "There's Music in You," written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1953 film Main Street to Broadway, sung here as a sweeping benediction and the fairy tale's finale by Fairy Godmother Whitney Houston.
A co-production of Walt Disney TeleFilms, Storyline Entertainment and Houston Productions, this Cinderella—like the two TV versions preceding it—made television history: as the No. 1 show of the week, with over 60 million viewers, it became the highest-rated TV musical in a generation, a hit with critics and audiences alike. An encore broadcast on Valentine's Night 1998 drew another 15 million viewers and the Disney Home Video version, also released that year, became the best-selling video of a TV movie ever released.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella endures. Stage productions of Cinderella continue to thrive as well, including an acclaimed version presented by the New York City Opera in 1993, 1995, and 2003. In the fall of 2000 Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella stepped down from the screen and onto the stage once again in an enchanting revival on U.S. national tour, starring Eartha Kitt as The Fairy Godmother. In 2013, the musical premiered on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre, starring Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana.
Travelling from TV screens to opera houses to stages across America, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella has emerged from her own little corner to live happily ever after.