August 1, 2007
A special note: I'm taking a short vacation break after this post but my good friend Bill has agreed to post the next two entries while I'm away. He loves theater as much as I do and knows a whole lot about it so you'll be in good hands.
The dog days of summer are definitely here. There is only one Broadway show opening between now and Labor Day (Grease) and at least half a dozen closing (Beauty and the Beast, Grey Gardens, and 110 in the Shade went down on Sunday; and Deuce, Frost/Nixon and The Year of Magical Thinking will take their final bows before the end of the month). But you can still treat yourself to some great Broadway performances if you know the right DVDs. Here are a few recommendations to keep you going until the fall season starts:
1. Broadway - The American Musical
This three-disc set, originally a 2004 PBS series, traces the history of the musical through a treasure trove of archival photos, rare film footage and reminiscences from show makers like Ziegfeld showgirl Dana O’Connell, songwriter Jerry Herman and producer Cameron Mackintosh, as well as show lovers like theater historian Robert Kimball, New Yorker critic John Lahr and the late restaurateur and unofficial mayor of Broadway Vincent Sardi Jr. It’s all tied together with perky narration by Julie Andrews and if you still want more, there’s also a companion coffee table book.
2. The Songwriters Collection
You can’t really have a great musical without great music and this four-disc set, taken from a couple of cable shows, puts the spotlight on nine men who have created some of Broadway’s best music. In each nearly hour-length episode, legends like John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman), Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon) and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello, She Loves Me) talk about how they wrote their songs and, in some cases, even perform them.
3. Broadway's Lost Treasures
This 80 minute DVD is the first in what has grown, so far, into a three-part series of performances culled from Tony telecasts over the years. From Vivian Blaine’s “Adelaide’s Lament” in Guys and Dolls to Zero Mostel’s “If I Were A Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof, here’s your chance to see the original showstoppers that anyone who loves Broadway wishes he or she had seen. Or if they did see them back then, longs to see again.
4. Broadway: The Golden Age
Like many theater lovers, TV producer Rick McKay grew up fantasizing about Broadway and lamenting that he was born too late to experience American theater’s Golden Age from the 1940s through the 1960s. But unlike the rest of us, McKay went out and did something about it. He turned five years of interviews with the people who were there into this terrific 111-minute DVD in which legends like Elizabeth Ashley, Barbara Cook, Hume Cronyn, Cy Feuer, Robert Goulet, Jerry Orbach, Mary Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim reminisce about the first Broadway show they ever saw, the first Broadway job they got, and what they did in their off-hours from eating cheap meals at the Horn & Hardart's Automat to all-night drinking sessions at Sardi’s. It’s the next best thing to having been there.
5. The Best of the Tony Awards: The Plays
Most Broadway collections focus on musicals because it’s easier to showcase a snazzy dance number than it is to show a scene that captures the essence of a play. But this DVD, released just three months ago, features excerpts from 19 Tony-nominated plays that were shown on the awards' telecasts that aired between 1969 and 2001. Most run only two or three minutes but it’s still a treat to see Sam Waterston before his “Law and Order” days, Annette Benning before her Warren Beatty years, Peter Friedman before he lost his hair and James Earl Jones, who appears in two clips including a nearly 10 minute segment from The Great White Hope, before his once-ubiquitous telephone ads and at the top of his truly prodigious powers.
6. Original Cast Album - Company
“Art isn’t easy,” Stephen Sondheim would later write in the lyrics for the song "Putting it Together" in Sunday in the Park With George. He may have learned that lesson while making the cast recording for Company. Documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker recorded the entire session and it is a rare look at some of the greatest talents in the business in the heat of the creative process. There’s also a terrific commentary track that adds recollections 30 years later from Company’s director Hal Prince and co-star Elaine Stritch, whose struggle to record her big number from the show provides the film’s dramatic tension. This one is truly a classic
Now, all you need to do is grab a cold drink, settle back and have a great time. In fact, such a good time that I've packed the discs to take on vacation with my husband K and me. So enjoy and I'll see you when I get back.