A Salute to Broadway: Show Stoppers PBS, tonight, 8-9 p.m. ``In Performance at the White House'' pays tribute to five women stars of Broadway musicals. Mary Martin, cuddled in a snowy mink coat, perches on top of a White House grand piano and belts out ``My Heart Belongs to Daddy.'' Cut to a reaction shot of President and Mrs. Reagan smiling at Miss Martin and the 1938 Cole Porter song that made her a star.
For this ``In Performance at the White House'' program, the numbers span the show-biz decades from the '30s to the '80s.
President Reagan says, ``As the executive branch's unofficial elder statesman of show business, I actually remember those shows.... Some in this audience, when you say, `Remember the season of 1938?' - they smile in a funny way as if you'd said, `Remember the Louisiana Purchase?'''
Nancy Reagan notes in her introduction that, in the early theater tradition we inherited from Britain, women weren't permitted on stage. But this show focuses on five women stars: Dorothy Loudon, Jennifer Holliday, Bea Arthur, Elaine Paige, and Mary Martin. Its master of ceremonies is Marvin Hamlisch.
This writer first saw the program as it was being taped at the White House in a room where Martha and George Washington looked on from huge portraits. The ballroom-size room seemed as if it had been caught in a time warp, with banks of TV cameras massed amid the historic furniture. The few hundred members of the audience in their best bibs and tuckers sat on spindly gilt chairs. After the show they filed out to meet President and Mrs. Reagan, then went on to a reception.
Some of the chat between songs was cut for the PBS version, and unfortunately one of the best numbers was also cut. That was ``If They Could See Me Now,'' from ``Sweet Charity.'' It was sung by Jennifer Holliday, together with ``And I'm Tellin' You'' from ``Dream Girls,'' in an impassioned, gutsy style that sent shivers through the audience and placed the crystal chandeliers on the endangered-species list. Some of the other numbers, like Dorothy Loudon's ``Fifty Per Cent'' (from ``Ballroom Music'') and Bea Arthur's ``Broadway My Street'' (from ``70 Girls 70''), really weren't show stoppers.
On the other hand, British star Elaine Paige's numbers were 14-carat show stoppers: ``Don't Cry for Me, Argentina,'' from ``Evita,'' and ``Memories'' from ``Cats,'' delivered in silky, intelligent readings. Bea Arthur doesn't so much sing her songs as talk them entertainingly in the style of Rex Harrison. Ms. Loudon, who opened the show with ``Broadway Baby'' from ``Follies,'' is a deft trouper who might have been showcased better in one of her hit numbers from ``Annie.''
The quality of this show is uneven, with some of the more seasoned singers reaching for notes that just weren't there. Mary Martin missed a few, for instance. But who would want to miss her, singing with 'elan some of the most cherished songs in the history of American musicals?