'Primrose': 44 Years Later, Still Sharp As Thumbtacks Evening Primrose, Stephen Sondheim's made-for-TV musical about a poet and the girl he discovers living after hours in a department store hasn't been been televised since its 1966 premiere. David Bianculli says the musical, out Tuesday on DVD for the first time, showcases Sondheim's "early brilliance."

'Primrose': 44 Years Later, Still Sharp As Thumbtacks

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Two years ago, E1 Entertainment and the Archive of American Television released on DVD a long-lost treasure from TV's Golden Age, the original 1954 live drama, "12 Angry Men." This week it released another TV treasure never before available on home video and not televised since its 1966 premiere. It's "Evening Primrose," a made-for-TV musical with songs by Stephen Sondheim.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Lots of excellent TV is being presented this week - the third season premiere of "In Treatment" on HBO, the premiere of "The Walking Dead" on AMC.

But no new television event to me is quite so exciting as this week's DVD release of "Evening Primrose," which hasn't been available since ABC presented it in the fall of 1966 - 44 years ago.

"Evening Primrose" is kind of a "Twilight Zone" episode set to music. And that makes sense, since it's based on a short story by John Collier, whose creepy, fanciful stories inspired episodes not only episodes of "Twilight Zone" but a handful of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" installments as well.

"Evening Primrose" is about a young poet in New York City who decides to avoid both pressure and rent by moving into a department store, hiding during the day and living there rent-free at night. It turns out he's not the first to have that idea - and the other residents have some very firm opinions about who gets to stay and how to dispose of those who don't.

Composer Stephen Sondheim was attracted to this story by motivations other than pure inspiration. At the age of 36, Sondheim already had written the lyrics for "West Side Story," "Gypsy," and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and music and lyrics for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" - which was a hit - and "Anyone Can Whistle," which wasn't. His envelope-pushing triumph "Company" was four years in the future.

He was working with writer James Goldman on a show that eventually would become another classic, "Follies," but Goldman's wife was about to have a second child and he needed rent money for a larger apartment. So Sondheim approached the producers of ABC's "Stage 67," which had announced its intention to present a prime-time weekly arts series, and asked if they wanted an original musical from Goldman and him.

Presto. "Evening Primrose" was born, with Sondheim's friend Anthony Perkins -six years after "Psycho" - playing Charles, the poet who takes residence after hours in Stern's department store. You know from the start - the very start -that this is pure, clever Sondheim. The opening song gets its tempo from Charles - from his frightened heartbeat - as he hides away, listening as the night watchman turns off all the lights and leaves. And then it begins...

(Soundbite of song, "If You Can Find Me I'm Here")

Mr. ANTHONY PERKINS (Actor): (Charles Snell) Is it done? Are they gone? Am I alone? I'm alone. It's done. They're gone. I'm a genius. Charles, you are an unadulterated genius. You are an indisputable extraordinary - what was that? Not a thing. You're a fool. You are alone. And it begins.

Careful. Careful. Mustn't get excited. Mustn't overdo it. Softly, tip toe. You'll get used to it in no time. Look at it. Beautiful. What a place to live, what a place to write. I shall be inspired, I shall turn out elegies and sonnets, verses by the ton. At last I have a home, and nobody will know. No one in the world. Nobody will know I'm here.

(Singing) I am free. I am free. Goodbye friends and good riddance. Pardon while I disappear. Come see me soon in my hideaway. If you can find me I'm here...

BIANCULLI: "Evening Primrose" was televised in color, but no master tape survived. Even so, this new release is copied from a recently discovered and restored black-and-white print that is infinitely clearer, and better, than that bootleg copy that has been rumored to be circulating among Sondheim fans for years. In fact, the packaging on this DVD release deserves special mention. Not only are there extras on the DVD, but it comes with a fascinating 28-page booklet with the show's entire history, written by Jane Klain of the Paley Center for Media. With this release, "Evening Primrose" finally gets the respect it deserves.

And boy, does it make a case for the early brilliance of Sondheim. When co-star Charmian Carr, as a young woman who has lived in the store since she was six, sings longingly of the outside world, every comparison she makes is to a piece of store merchandise. And in the finale, when she's begging in song to be taken away by Charles, he speaks up, then sings up, to disagree.

Their duet is intense and amazing - and after almost half a century, it's available again.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Get Lost - Take Me The World")

Ms. CHARMIAN CARR (Actor): (as Ella Harkins)(Singing) Take me to a world where I can be alive.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) The world is better here. I know. I've seen them both.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let me see the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) Oh, it doesn't count for much out there.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let me see the world that smiles. Take me to the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) You'd be cold and hungry in the winter.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Somewhere I can walk for miles.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) A shabby room with cracked plaster.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Take me to the world.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) You couldn't get a job.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) With all around things growing in the ground.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) We'd end up hating each other. We'd have fights. You'd cry.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Where birds that make a sound are birds. Let me see the world that's real.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) I have seen the world.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Show me how it's done.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) And it's mean and ugly.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Teach me how to laugh, to feel.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) We could laugh together.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Move me to the sun.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay here with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Just hold my hand...

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay here. I love you.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) ...whenever we arrive.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) But we're happy here.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Let it be a world with you.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Any other world with you.

Mr. PERKINS: (Charles Snell) (Singing) Stay with me.

Ms. CARR: (as Ella Harkins) (Singing) Take me to a world where I can be alive...

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" has just been published in paperback.

We're not done with Stephen Sondheim. I'm recording an interview with him about his new book "Finishing the Hat," which we expect to broadcast Thursday. We're closing with music from his show that's in revival on Broadway, "A Little Night Music."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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