Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” is that rare television gem, an artistic and commercial hit that, strangely, has not been repeated to death. Rather, this musical starring a 21-year-old Julie Andrews has become a bit of a mysterious relic, having sat on a shelf since its one live broadcast, on March 31, 1957, on CBS.
Its absence wasn’t a question of copyright tangles but mostly an issue of timing, said Theodore S. Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. “The DVD market made the home-video market explode,” he said, explaining the organization’s decision to release it. “Movies can now make more money selling on DVD than in a movie theater.”
First, however, a restored version of the kinescope will be shown on television on Channel 13’s “Great Performances” tomorrow night at 8 and nationally Dec. 13 on PBS, with the DVD released the following day.
The original program was a network event watched by a record 107 million. At the time, Rodgers and Hammerstein ruled Broadway, and Julie Andrews was starring in “My Fair Lady.” Edie Adams, known from her stints in early television, was the fairy godmother, with a touch more glamour and street smarts than the usual fluttery wish-granter. The ugly stepsisters were the future television comedy stars Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley. Only the prince, Jon Cypher — decades before he became the pompous Chief Daniels of “Hill Street Blues” — was a newcomer.
“Ralph Nelson, our director, wanted us to play it very, very straight,” Ms. Andrews said in a telephone interview. “Even including the magical things. He wanted to make it on camera, rather than using whatever limited technical effects we could have used in those days.”
“I guess now it is almost a period piece, or I guess to some extent a beloved curiosity, ” she added. “It’s been done in so many incarnations, and at least two major television premieres with other people. It never occurred to me that it would be brought back.”
There was a 1965 version starring Lesley Ann Warren, and a 1997 turn with Brandy, but the original remained largely unseen, even though it has often been revived onstage, with a premiere at the City Opera in 1993 and a star-studded production there last month. When Mr. Chapin joined the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization 23 years ago, “I went into the closet at the old office and pulled out pieces of film that were hither and yon,” he said. “And one was three reels of this 16-millimeter of ‘Cinderella.’ I had never actually seen it, and I looked at it. It’s so primitive and has such a magical side to it.”
Mr. Chapin had it transferred to video and pondered what to do. His company owned the kinescope, so there were no legal issues. Still, he said, the common feeling was that black-and-white television musicals were not much of a draw.
After the DVD market took off, Image Home Video was hired to restore the kinescope. The rebroadcast is the return of a production that was so popular, Mr. Cypher recalls on the DVD commentary, that the streets were deserted when he left the theater the night the original was shown, because everyone was watching it.
Over the years, fans found ways to see a few bootleg copies or to watch it at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, where special screenings of it are “very well attended,” said Jane Klain, the museum’s manager of research services. That’s where one of the original ugly stepsisters finally saw it.
“I said, ‘Gee, I wasn’t so ugly!”‘ Ms. Ballard said in a telephone interview from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “Oh, it was so insulting, they asked me to play the ugly stepsister.” Ms. Ballard plans to watch it again “and see the mistakes,” she said.
They are hard to spot. Ms. Adams, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, remembered that in rehearsal, Mr. Rodgers blew a whistle to halt one number midnote. The second boy on the left in the chorus was singing an A flat instead of an A natural. That attention to detail ensured an audience response so enthusiastic that “my jaw is still open,” Ms. Adams said.
Still, the original broadcast brings to mind one of the musical’s numbers, “Impossible.” It is almost inconceivable to imagine a musical of a fairy tale attracting 60 percent of viewers and being spoken about reverentially nearly half a century later.
“It is so odd to see myself so very young,” said Ms. Andrews, who has not watched the show in its entirety in years. “There are so many things you wish you had done different. It will be fascinating to look at, I must say.”