Liza Minnelli and The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood
By the 1960s, television had emerged in America as the most-popular form of entertainment. A mass audience was there for the picking and what better time to reach them with messages from advertisers than at the holidays. Family-friendly fare of the yuletide persuasion was being sought by the major networks NBC, CBS and ABC. Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill were involved in two of the earliest family holiday specials: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol and The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood. The former is a beloved classic amongst animated holiday specials and I will explore that piece in a separate article. The latter is a live-action curiosity starring Liza Minnelli that has faded, somewhat, into obscurity but that has developed a cult status amongst musical enthusiasts. I will explore that curiosity here. Both bear repeated viewings, if for two very different reasons.
Nowhere near as popular or durable, but equally as fascinating as their Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, was Jule Styne’s and Bob Merrill’s The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (1965) This piece would be catered to the talents of actor-singer-dancer Liza Minnelli, fresh off a Tony win for the short-lived Broadway musical Flora, the Red Menace, and to the talents of Cyril Ritchard, a foppish dandy best-known for his Tony-winning portrayal of Captain Hook in the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan. She would play the incorrigible title character and he would be the misunderstood, fussy Lone T. Wolf. Crooner Vic Damone would play the Woodsman while the pop band The Animals would take on the roles of Lone T’s lupine brethren. Robert Emmett would pen the teleplay, while Styne/Merrill would team up again and create their first score together post Funny Girl. The project would be directed by Sid Smith (variety show director extraordinaire) and choreography would be provided by Lee Theodore (founder of the American Dance Machine and West Side Story alumnus). ABC would be the network that would present The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood or Oh Wolf, Poor Wolf. With this team of talent and know-how in place, this project was certain to be a success. More or less, it was.
The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood told the classic Grimm’s fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood from the point of view of the Big Bad Wolf while also giving the yarn a holiday spin. It’s Christmas time, and Wolf bemoans being left out of the holiday festivities (“We Wish the World a Happy Yule”), but fears his fate is sealed in loneliness due to an inaccurate telling of his story that has inappropriately maligned him as a villain (He is a book-learned gentleman and a vegetarian, he tells us). Lillian (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood) is celebrating Christmas with her mother who bestows upon her a blue riding cape, lined with red. Since Lillian has a penchant for all things scarlet and crimson, she turns the cape inside out and wears it that way (“My Red Riding Hood”). Lillian’s trip to Granny’s house begins with a dance, a peculiar frolic with the woodland creatures (“Red Riding Hood Improvisations”) that moves back and forth between traditional folk dance and sounds, and a more contemporary, avant-garde approach. For audiences, the segment was jarring, but the anachronistic nature of the piece, as well as its fractured-fairytale style, gave the authors freedom to play with the story’s presentation in this manner. The next scene features Lillian and her first encounter with Lone T. Wolf (as his calling card states) whereupon he is most cordial to the girl. She is fascinated by him until she realizes he is both a stranger and a wolf, which sends her running of into the forest. Lone T. Wolf is left to lick his wounds while being harassed by his fellow wolves for not living up to the natural inclinations of their species (“Snubbed”). Peer pressured and bullied, the creature sets off to find Lillian and to set the record straight. Lillian happens upon The Woodsman (Vic Damone), chopping wood in the forest and singing (“The Woodman’s Serenade/Granny’s Gulch”). As Lone T. observes from afar, the Woodsman reveals that he may be a prince under an enchantment, but he isn’t quite sure because his memory is fuzzy. He offers to escort Lillian to Granny’s house, but she is a liberated girl and won’t hear of it. Instead, he sings her a beguiling ballad (“Along the Way”) and kisses her on the cheek, which sends her running off into the woods again, uncertain of how to respond to this affection from a person she has just met (“I’m Naïve”). Jealous of this scene, Lone T. decides to dress up as a woodcutter and recreate the moment in the hopes that he can win over Lillian’s affections (reprise “I’m Naïve”). After a while, Lillian catches on and, once again, takes flight. Growing more frustrated, Lone T. commiserates with his fellow wolves (in the pop-inspired “We’re Gonna Howl Tonight”) and decides he will indeed eat the little girl. We transition to Granny’s house where Lone T. has the old lady locked in the cellar. Donned in her party dress, mob cap and glasses, he greets Lillian as she arrives and makes all the preparations to boil the little girl. He tells the girl he’s throwing a holiday party and together the two sing the festive “Ding-a-Ling”, though his part in the song seems more like a celebration of his recipe for cooking the girl. Meanwhile, a little mouse runs to the Woodsman to dance out the story of what has happened to Lillian (“Poor Mouse”). This inefficient game of charades finally propels the Woodsman to go help the little girl. Back at Granny’s, Lone T. has Lillian dancing a tango with him as he inches her toward the cooking pot (“Granny”). In her usual, slow to catch-on way, Lillian finally realizes that this is not her grandmother. Just as she is about to be murdered, the Woodsman storms in to the rescue. Instead of slaying the wolf, he breaks into a reprise of “Along the the Way”, forcing Lone T. to admit that the girl will always pick a handsome crooner over him. He surrenders as Lillian ties him up and he is hauled away to the zoo. We find out from Lone T. that The Woodsman (who is merely an earl and not a prince) marries the girl in the red cape and presumably lives happily ever after. As for Lone T, he spends his next Christmas alone, that is, until he is invited by the skunks to come their cage to celebrate the holidays. He announces “Well...it’s a start.” The festivities conclude with Lillian, The Woodsman and Chorus singing a reprise of “We Wish the World a Happy Yule.” In the final strains, Lone T. Wolf joins the group and finally gets to celebrate Christmas with a circle of friends.
The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood was not the Christmas tale we had come to expect, with its dark themes and slightly sour story. Sometimes the wolf’s advances appear uncomfortably sexual in nature and slightly obsessive in his need to be adored by the girl. That aside, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill conjured some lovely songs for the piece. Standouts include “My Red Riding Hood”, a joyous “I want” song for Lillian that perfectly sets up the flakey and clueless person that she is. “Along the Way” is a gentle ballad, featuring some of Merrill’s most subtly charming lyrics that suggest a song is a gift that you can give someone to accompany them when they are alone. The raison d’etre “We Wish the World a Happy Yule” deserves more play around the holidays as its Jule Styne melody has a festive playfulness that captures everything that the holidays are about. Merrill is his most silly here with ach rhymes such as “presentses for pheasantses” keeping everything light and breezy.
First airing on November 28, 1965 The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood took received a 19.5 Nielsen rating, besting all other programming for the night. Despite being a popular property, the made-for-TV musical didn’t air again. It is now available to watch on DVD, but only in a black and white format. The original color print has disappeared. The original soundtrack recording, preserved by ABC/Paramount Records, was available on vinyl and used copies continue to appear on Amazon.com and eBay. The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood may be looked upon as one of the more peculiar made-for-TV musicals, and it certainly doesn’t have the following that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol does, but it has much to offer by way of melody and lyrical whimsy. This is why it will always be remembered and discussed when the yuletide is being celebrated amongst musical theatre buffs.