Musical Monday: General Electric Theater presents “A Child is Born” (1955)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

Album cover for the 1955 version of "A Child is Born"

Album cover for the 1955 version of “A Child is Born”

This week’s musical:
General Electric Theater presents “A Child is Born” (1955) – Musical #557

CBS Television Network

Don Medford

Nadine Conner, Robert Middleton, Harve Presnell, Marian Seldes, Nyra Monsour, Ross Elliott, Roger Wagner Chorale
Themselves as Hosts: Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Patti Reagan

An operatic retelling of the Nativity story. The story is in the point of view of the Innkeeper (Middleton) and his wife (Connor). The wife is restless, still mourning the death of her baby, and feels something new is coming to the world. Roman soldiers take every room in the inn so when Joseph (Elliott) comes to the door, the Innkeeper and his wife allow them to stay in the stable when they see that Mary is pregnant.

The Innkeeper (Middleton) and his wife (Conner)

The Innkeeper (Middleton) and his wife (Conner)

-“A Child is Born” was Broadcast live for the first time on the General Electric Theater on Dec. 25, 1955. The show was Broadcast live again the following year on Dec. 23, 1956. The 1955 version starred Victor Jory and Theodore Uppman, as Dismas the thief. In the 1956 version, Victor Jory is not in the play and Harve Presnell plays Dismas the thief.

-The score was composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. This was Bernard Herrmann’s last project of 1955.

-The adaptation of the Nativity story was written by Stephen Vincent Benet and originally was performed on the radio program “Cavalcade of America.” The 1942 performance starred husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

-This short opera aired on the General Electric Theater, which showcased a story, play or musical every week. The show ran from 1953 to 1962.

Harve Presnell as a thief

Harve Presnell as a thief

-Bernard Herrmann’s score

Notable songs:
-Shot like an opera so not really one song.

My review:
“A Child is Born” is a very solemn television operetta, which consists of more singing than dialogue.

This Nativity story is tells of the Innkeeper and his wife. That being said, we do not see the Virgin Mary or baby Jesus. We only see Joseph knocking on the door of the inn and the audience watches the shepherds and wise men come to visit the child through a window of the inn.

Shepherds and wise men visiting the Christ child.

Shepherds and wise men visiting the Christ child.

I sought this 30 minute opera out not only because it is a musical related to Christmas, but because the music was composed and conducted for the “General Electric Theater” TV episode by Academy Award winning composer Bernard Herrmann. The music in this play is beautiful and solemn. For me, Herrmann’s score is the best part of “A Child is Born.”

Metropolitan Opera singer Nadine Conner carries 85 percent of the singing throughout the film. Conner has a lovely voice, but admittedly, it’s a little tiring to hear the same person’s singing voice continuously throughout the piece without any other singers. The Innkeeper, played by Robert Middleton, does not sing, nor do the two servant girls, played by Marian Seldes and Nyra Monsour.

Harve Presnell, in only his second film or TV appearance, comes in at the last 10 minutes of the film along with the Roger Wagoner Chorale. Presnell and the Chorale sing beautifully, but I wish their songs had come in earlier to break some monotony. Presnell plays a thief, who is moved not to steal when he sees the Christ Child.

Critics and audiences weren’t complimentary of this operetta when it was Broadcast live in 1955. One complaint was that the set never changes and shows only one room of the inn. Audiences also felt that the play wasn’t inspiring as it should have been. Critics also said Herrmann’s music was “not distinguished,” according to Bruce Kimmel’s liner notes for the “Child is Born” album.

I’m inclined to agree that I certainly didn’t feel moved by this story of the Nativity, like I thought I would have. I mainly felt tired after the 30 minutes. Part of this had to do with Nadine Conner’s constant singing. Another reason was the two servant girls over acting and shouting.

However, I disagree that Herrmann’s music was “not distinguished.” His score was the highlight the brief TV show, and if I felt moved, it was because of his music.

It’s curious to me that if “A Child was Born” was unpopular in 1955, why it was Broadcast again in 1956.

It proved to be confusing while searching for 1955 version vs. the 1956 version. The only version I could find online was the 1956 version, though many people seem to think there isn’t a difference. However, Victor Jory was in the original cast, and is even billed on the front of the record, and he is not in the version I watched.

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