October 14, 2010
Reexamining Bloomer Girl with Barbara Cookby Rebecca Paller
Last Saturday afternoon the Paley Center hosted a screening of the May 28, 1956, NBC broadcast of Bloomer Girl followed by a discussion with the star of that telecast: Barbara Cook.
Bloomer Girl, with songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and choreography by Agnes De Mille, premiered on Broadway in 1944. Set on the eve of the Civil War, it proved to be one of the most beloved and adventurous musicals of the era—tackling racial and gender equality head-on.
Barbara Cook played the role of Evelina Applegate (originally played on Broadway by Celeste Holm), the feisty young protégée of her maternal aunt, Amelia “Dolly” Bloomer—a real-life abolitionist and feminist who encouraged women to discard their stiff and uncomfortable hoop skirts in favor of loose trousers gathered at the ankles.
The show’s superb score includes “The Eagle and Me,” sung by the runaway slave Pompey (played on TV by the eloquent singer Rawn Spearman); the heart-stopping love duet “Right as the Rain” (beautifully rendered by Ms. Cook and Keith Andes); and the striking, haunting “Civil War Ballet”—with standout performances by two members of the original Broadway company: James Mitchell as a returning soldier and Betty Low as the Widow who looks in vain for her husband.
Yip Harburg, “the social conscience of the American musical,” believed in “sending people out of the theater with the glow of having had a good time while also making them think,” said Bill Rudman, host of the Sirius XM On Broadway program On the Aisle, in his introduction to the screening.
The post-screening conversation began with Ms. Cook’s pointed criticisms of her performance (“I didn’t seem to have enough guts”), the severely truncated TV adaptation (“They even cut the scene in which I wear bloomers!”), and the director Alex Segal (who was unduly nasty to actor Paul Ford during rehearsals) but then turned to more serious issues.
Betty Low, today a regal and gorgeous nonagenarian, recalled for the Paley Center audience the Bloomer Girl performance of April 12, 1945—the day when Roosevelt died. “The ballet became very, very symbolic, and the audience was absolutely frozen stiff.”
Next one audience member commented on the “bravery” of the telecast in view of the political climate of the day (Bloomer Girl aired a year before the Little Rock Crisis and two years after Brown v. Board of Education) while another praised the irony of Harburg’s lyrics for “Sunday in Cicero Falls” (“Shoes are brushed and shirts are starched/Hearts are pure and tongues are parched” …“Even the rabbits inhibit their habits/On Sunday in Cicero Falls”).
When asked about her leading role in Broadway’s Candide (which opened six months after the Bloomer Girl broadcast), Ms. Cook spoke of her great pride in being part of the cast. “Lillian Hellman and Lenny Bernstein did a very courageous thing by writing that show. They addressed the issue of book burning and name naming and all of that. It’s hard to believe now that blacklisting happened.
“But it happened far too easily.”
The famous “Civil War Ballet”
Barbara Cook in three numbers from Bloomer Girl
Before joining the Paley Center in 2000, Rebecca Paller was associate editor of Where Magazine in New York and Northern Ohio Live in Cleveland. She has written about the arts for publications including Opera News, American Theatre, Vogue, and Playbill.Interests:
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