Random Thoughts on This and That

The Beacon Theatre on 74th Street and Broadway has been selected for this season’s Tony Awards ceremony. Originally it was said the Apollo Theatre was being considered, but it turned out to be one of several venues under consideration.The New York Times Arts Beat tweeted “The Bad News: It’s Small. The Good News: It’s Actually on Broadway.”

I have wished that the Tonys would return to an actual Broadway house for years. There is an argument that Broadway shows couldn’t accommodate the television event, but for over thirty years they were. How often does a televiewer get to see the inside of a Broadway theater on television? The use of Radio City Music Hall allows the American Theatre Wing and Broadway League to make more money from ticket sales, but as I’ve said before, it loses intimacy and becomes another bloated event that becomes more and more joyless each year. Performances are shorter, celebrities with little to no affiliation with Broadway are given front seats in order to draw ratings. (CBS, let’s face it, the Tonys will never be a ratings winner). I know that Radio City is a landmark, but I’d rather go see How the West Was Won than any live stage show there. The effect comes across on television. If you compare Tony telecasts from the past, there is an immediacy in earlier years that comes as close as possible to putting the show in viewers’ living rooms. But this is least it’s a step in the right direction. The Beacon Theatre is half the size of the Music Hall and should translate better on television. But I have to beg: next year in a Broadway house! (Or see if we can get the Times Square Church out of the glorious Mark Hellinger).

I’m currently reading Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, a scathing look at studio era Hollywood with its infamous main character Sammy Glick. Starting out as a copy boy in a NY newspaper, Glick steals, cheats and writes his way into Hollywood power without any talent – except for self-promotion. The film made Schulberg something of a pariah in Hollywood – his own film executive father told him he’d never work in the town again (though he would later win an Oscar for the screenplay of On the Waterfront). Executives were enraged. Insiders were enraged. But the book was a phenomenon, one that continues to be read and studied. Bette Davis later told Dick Cavett that it was the most accurate depiction of Hollywood life she’d ever seen.

A film version was never made, but it has been seen on TV and on Broadway as a musical. The original cast album of What Makes Sammy Run? was just issued by Sony’s Masterworks Broadway in its stereo debut. An overpriced mono CD had been available from star Steve Lawrence‘s personal label (along with his ’68 flop Golden Rainbow). Sony brings the score back to the forefront at a cheaper cost. I’ve yet to get the CD, but it’s on my to-do list. Plans for a film version surface every few years, but it has never come to fruition.

A few days ago, I mentioned that Auntie Mame was getting a DVD reissue. Warner Bros. first released the Oscar nominated classic in 2002 but I have held back on getting it until now. It’s a bizarre OCD quirk of mine, but I really hate the “snap cases” in which DVDs made their premiere in 1997. It’s a minor idiosyncrisy of mine, I know, but since WB has been reissuing these films in the preferable keep case format, I’ve held out on many titles for years. There was a double issue of Auntie Mame and The Shop Around the Corner in 2008, but that was quickly deleted from the catalog. I cannot wait to pop it; if you haven’t seen the film you must as soon as possible. See Lucy in Mame only if you’re having a drinking party (for the record, I’ve not bought that disaster either).

Today is Veterans Day.Yesterday was the United States Marine Corps’ 235th birthday. As the son of a Marine, I want to wish all members of the USMC a Happy belated Birthday! (It was also my parents’ 37th anniversary. Much to my amusement, they chose to celebrate the Corps’ birthday). But to all veterans, I wish you well and thank you for your service. If you are overseas in an area of combat, I hope you get to come home soon. For those of you returning from Iraq, Afghanistan – anywhere, really, welcome home. Not just today, but every day, the federal government should be doing more for our troops coming home. Some need rehabilitation, life-long medical care, help finding jobs or coping with PTSD, etc. After all they’ve done for us, we should do something in return – and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue or cause for debate. We should do everything we can to help these men and women.

Upcoming DVDs and Blu-rays of Note

A couple years ago, I would regularly check in with some interesting “DVDs of Note” that I thought seemed interesting. I’m going to bring that back on a monthly basis and have a look at some of the releases of the month that I want or at least want to have a look at (now expanded to include the ever growing world of Blu-ray).

While much of the focus this week has been on the 45th anniversary Blu-ray premiere of The Sound of Music (which I’ll be looking at early next week), 20th Century Fox also gave Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the Blu-ray treatment this week, with a bonus standard DVD and new features. Paramount also released the Blu-ray edition of White Christmas, which seems to receive a brand new release every year.

On November 9, 20th Century Fox will be releasing The Elia Kazan Collection, an 18-disc DVD box set featuring his most well known films, with cooperation from Warner Bros and Columbia. The films included in the collection have been selected by Martin Scorsese and will feature his new documentary A Letter to Elia which was recently seen in various film festivals and on PBS “American Masters” series. Five of the films are making their first appearance on DVD: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!, Wild River and America, America. There are no plans at present to release these films individually. The set retails for $199.98. Having just seen America, America for the first time earlier this year, I am quite pleased that it’s finally receiving a DVD debut.

That same day, Warner Bros. will be reissuing the 1958 comedy classic Auntie Mame in a brand new keep case package. The film, whose original 2002 release went out of print about a year ago, is a perennial favorite and is based on the hilarious stage play by Lawrence and Lee. Star Rosalind Russell and featured actress Tony winner Peggy Cass reprise their stage roles for the screen. The film was a huge hit, garnering six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Actress (Russell), Supporting Actress (Cass). The new packaging isn’t as exciting, but it’s worth it just to keep the film in print. No word on any Blu-ray edition. Yet.

November 16, Image Entertainment releases Sondheim: The Birthday Concert on DVD and Blu-Ray. The NY Philharmonic concert, which took place on March 15 & 16, will feature a combination of performances from both evenings. Hosted by David Hyde Pierce, the concerts presented the best of Broadway. The first act consists of the songs for which he wrote only lyrics, as well as a parade of original performers recreating their signature numbers. The second act contains the now-legendary red dress segment, in which Sondheim divas, decked out in spectacular red gowns and outfits deliver showstopping renditions of some of his biggest numbers.

November 30: Disney Home Entertainment is going to release the documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which chronicles the professional and personal lives of Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman, arguably the most prolific songwriters in Disney history. The very personal story of their estrangement belies the music that has brought joy to millions. Their sons made this film in an effort to both try to understand the personal relationship while celebrating the professional collaboration. Also that day, Disney will be bringing Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 out of its vault for with a DVD reissue and Blu-ray premiere.

Saturday Shenanigans: “Coco” at Mufti, Beekman Place & Turtle Bay

While heading to the York Theatre Company for their revival of Coco, I unexpectedly found myself at the corner of 49th and 2nd Avenue, which also happens to be “Katharine Hepburn Place”. The great Hepburn lived in a townhouse down the street, which I had never seen before, but since I was meeting up with SarahB and Chris Caggiano I continued on my way. I looked it as a good omen for the day and for sure, the day was a delight from start to finish.

This was my first time seeing one of  the Musicals in Mufti (roughly translated: street clothes) and it’s quite fun. Not as high profile as Encores! (street clothes, piano accompaniment, chairs and boxes), but certainly an excellent resource for connecting with lost or forgotten musicals. Scripts are in hand, staging is simple and the cast is game; a baptism by fire experience. When it comes to Coco, my feelings on the show are pretty well known – in spite of its failings (its lack of drama or conflict, and some poorly drawn supporting characters) I enjoy it very much, particularly the score. The cast album is one of the worst recordings in musical theatre history. The sound quality is terrible and it sounds like it was recorded in a hangar or tunnel. Apparently the album was released and was found to be so horrible that the producers went back and had it fixed immediately, so there are actually two versions of the cast LP (and I understand the poorer of the two has more dance music).

Alan Jay Lerner’s book is incredibly static, but contains some excellent one liners for Chanel. Andre Previn’s music is better than original critics would have you believe and in some places is quite beautiful. The lyrics are for the most part good, but there are many occasions where Lerner’s effort shows. (My favorite number in the show is “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom,” Michael Bennett’s showstopping tribute to the basic black dress). Also, the character of Georges is more of a cipher of Lerner’s misogyny than an actual human being onstage. In fact Lerner’s misogyny tends to permeate the entire show. Chanel espouses independence, but the writer implies that her life was unfulfilled from not marrying and having children. This production reinstated “Someone on Your Side” for the ingenue which should have stayed cut. There was also deadly musical patter for the models in “The World Belongs to the Young” that was not in the original production.

The show hinges on its star. In a live tape of the original, Hepburn, in spite of her considerable vocal limitations, dominates, giving a true star turn that is funny, fascinating and energetic. She also never missed a performance (her standby was the estimable Joan Copeland). Headlining this production was the elegant Andrea Marcovicci, who also starred in a San Francisco revival of the show two years ago. After so many years of listening to Hepburn, it was a bit jarring to hear the role sung and by a soprano. But Marcovicci was a lot of fun and especially memorable in the second act. Her performance of the title song was quite insightful and moving.

The cast also included the wonderful Charles Kimbrough and Lewis Cleale. David Turner was amusing as Sebastian Baye and a model of restraint when compared to shameless Tony-winning originator Rene Auberjonois. Droll support was added by Susan Bloemmart as Chanel’s assistant Pignol. One of the things I realized was that this show relies very heavily on its visuals for effect. Cecil Beaton won a Tony for his eye-popping designs seen in various Bennett fashion parades. But that doesn’t detract from my appreciation at the opportunity to see the show on its feet, its first NY revival since the original closed forty years ago. (There was a workshop last year that eliminated the utterly boring ingenue and juvenile characters, but that didn’t seem to go over very well).

There was a fascinating lobby display with press photos, articles and various programs of the show – including a playbill with Hepburn’s replacement Danielle Darrieux. Given that the show ran a mere two months with Darrieux, that’s a real curio. There is also an article announcing the show as a vehicle for Rosalind Russell (who was married to the show’s producer Frederick Brisson, whose health prevented her from taking on the show) and other curios. There was a talkback, but we decided to spend some time with Chris, who was leaving town in a couple hours. Two rows behind us, much to our surprise, was Andy Rooney who looks even surlier in person. He and wife didn’t return after intermission. We also had the opportunity to meet musical theatre writer and expert Seth Christenfeld, another cyber friend from the twitter/facebook world.

Afterward Sarah and I set out on a pilgrimage to Beekman Place. We figured since we were on the East Side, which is a rather rare occurrence for this Broadwayite, we might as well go have a look. Beekman Place is, of course, the location of Mame Dennis Burnside’s penthouse apartment. The fictional Mame lived at 3 Beekman Place, but apparently the real-life inspiration was housed next door at 1 Beekman Place (we had a quick but memorable view of its staggering lobby). The street is a tiny two block strip East of 1st Avenue and just north of the United Nations, and many of the buildings house UN missions. Some of the houses also contain plaques; Sarah and I were very surprised to learn Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic once lived there. Other famous residents included Irving Berlin, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne and Ethel Barrymore. The riverside apartments have a rather impressive view of the FDR, East River and outlying boroughs. We took the opportunity to snap some photos and SarahB herself ended up the subject of an impromptu but requisite Beekman Place photo shoot.

After scoping out future real estate options, we made our way to the Turtle Bay Gardens on East 49th Street (the aforementioned Katharine Hepburn Place). Hepburn lived at 244 from 1931 until the mid 90s when her failing health took her to Fenwick, where the star died in 2003. Her famous neighbors have included Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and Stephen Sondheim. My first observation of Hepburn’s address was “the house looks empty.” As soon as I said that,  I googled the residence to discover it was recently made available for rent. You can live at Hepburn’s legendary 4 story townhouse for a cool $27,500 a month. (Donations will be gladly and grateful accepted).

From there we walked back to 1st Avenue and strolled down by the United Nations, which I had never seen before and was impressed by its layout, but really think they need to rethink that hideous tower of offices. We also got a glimpse at the brand new United States UN mission. We also glanced south while stopped at a light and saw the impressive beams of light memorializing the attacks of Sept. 11. Then we headed back to our familiar turf for a nightcap at Angus and our usual antics, where we observed some rather unusual patrons. Sarah tried to get me to second act POTO, but I balked. We also thought the St. James was piping American Idiot music through the marquee as we walked by. To our surprise it was actually the performance and we felt the theatre doors of the St. James vibrating. No show needs to be that loud. Overall it was an exhausting and full day, but truly a Saturday to remember.

Auntie Maim

Blessed Mother of Maude Adams, what fresh hell is this?

From Variety:

‘[Director Luca] Guadagnino said he and Swinton aspire to remake “Auntie Mame” as a “rock-n-roll, super funny, super mainstream movie.”

They would set their “Mame,” which is about a boy growing up as ward of his dead father’s eccentric sister, in the present-day.

“This is an SOS for Warner Bros. to give us the rights for this remake, which only Tilda could do justice to,” he added.’

You know I have nothing against a revival of Auntie Mame and/or Mame. Or even a filmed remake of either property. However, this isn’t exactly how I pictured a re-emergence of the timeless character. In any incarnation, Mame is a period piece, and continues to work well in said period. Her effusive spirit is something that comes out of the Roaring Twenties, survives the Crash of ’29 and continues into the Big Band Era: living life to the fullest and fighting the Establishment and stuffy provincial bigots along the way.

Elements of Auntie Mame could work today, but I hardly consider her “rock-n-roll.” Mame Dennis Burnside is more than a character, she’s a force of life. A living embodiment of Bohemianism and sophistication that I think most people would love to have in their lives. Not to mention, Tilda Swinton strikes me as all wrong for the part. Swinton is certainly an eccentric personality as attested by her Hefty bag fashion sense on Oscar night, and she leads a rather Bohemian lifestyle as evidenced by her open relationship with both husband and lover. I am pleased that she considers Auntie Mame one of her favorite films, but there is no need for her to reinvent the wheel.

Is there anyone who could bring savvy sophistication like Rosalind Russell, Greer Garson or Angela Lansbury? It’s harder to cast the role of Mame because the character for all it’s glorious lines and costumes, is static. Mame never changes, which is essential to her Mary Poppins-esque way of popping in and out of her nephew’s life. The actress who can successfully play Mame should be patrician, open-hearted and sympathetic. It takes more than a good delivery of a zinger to make a Mame.

I would rather sit through the leaden 1974 film version of Mame with Lucille Ball than see the rape of a classic.

What’s My Line: Greer Garson as Mame

Most people identify the role of Auntie Mame with either Rosalind Russell or Angela Lansbury (and the occasional philistine will mention Lucille Ball). However, there were three notable actresses who played the part in the original Broadway production of the play. Russell opened the show to rave reviews and she was the toast of the town for over a year. When Russell departed the NY production to make the film version of Auntie Mame, her replacement was none other than Oscar-winning British actress Greer Garson, in her one and only appearance on Broadway (Bea Lillie then took over for the last four weeks of the NY run before opening the play in London). During Ms. Garson’s stay at the Broadhurst Theatre, she made an appearance my youtube obsession “What’s My Line?” all dolled up as Mame, complete with cigarette holder. The actress, who seemed to channel Garbo in her answers, proceeded to stump the entire panel including guest Orson Welles. Enjoy.

Original Cast Album: "Mame"

Was introduced to Bleecker Bob’s yesterday afternoon by SarahB. While down to catch the Fringe production of How Now Dow Jones, we found ourselves with some time to browse through the cast album bin ($2 special on many popular favorites). As you may recall, I am a huge fan of record shopping. Not only do I enjoy the browsing, but I am always excited at the potential of finding a forgotten gem. I picked up Ballroom, Shenandoah, Coco, and the original off-Broadway cast of Hair. Now, not only do I like to collect the records, but I also like to play them. I sound older than my 26 years, but there is just something so incredibly satisfying about the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl. So while I played through a few platters, I decided to pop on Mame, just because. What I had never done before was read the back of the sleeve. I discovered here the most amusing artist biographies I think I’ve ever read and thought I’d share:

ANGELA LANSBURY (Mame) can do anything but wrong. She can be the good girl (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the bad girl (Gaslight), villainous mother (The Manchurian Candidate) or Elizabeth Taylor’s sister (National Velvet). Those were films. On stage she has ranged Bert Lahr’s farcical playmate in Hotel Paradiso to the dramatic demands of A Taste of Honey. Her previous musical outing, Anyone Can Whistle, proved that she can handle parades and miracles. MAME proves she can handle anything. And not only sing it, dance it and act it, but wear it, too. And beautifully.

JERRY HERMAN (Music and Lyrics) is a blooming Broadway industry. With four previous scores to his credit (two revues, plus Milk and Honey and Hello, Dolly!) he has a Tony Award, a gold record, a Grammy Award, 1964 citation from Variety as both the year’s “Best Composer” and “Best Lyricist,” and from station WPAT, for the song “Shalom,” a Gaslight award (no connection with Miss Lansbury’s movie). On top fo this he was chosen one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men by the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1965. Yes, he seems to have the knack of things, all right.

JEROME LAWRENCE and ROBERT E. LEE (Authors) began on Broadway with a musical, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, starring Nancy Walker. But then they wrote a play, called Inherit the Wind, and the success of that classic theater piece kept them thinking in dramatic terms for some time. (Having a work translated into Urdu and Serbo-Croatian and twenty-six other languages can do that). But one of their subsequent plays was a masterful comedy named Auntie Mame from PATRICK DENNIS’ brilliantly funny novel. And now, with the musical MAME, they are bringing it all back home.

SYLVIA and JOSEPH HARRIS and ROBERT FRYER and LAWRENCE CARR (Producers) are a kind of musical Quartet. Each comes to production with significant individual credits. Fryer and Carr produced the original Auntie Mame, Desk Set, Advise and Consent and Gwen Verdon’s Redhead. Sylvia Harris coproduced Make a Million and Tovarich, and her husband Joseph has conquered virtually every known aspect of theatrical business management. Together the four launched their firstborn, Sweet Charity, and resuscitated not only the old Palace Theatre but an entire New York theatrical season. And here they come again.

GENE SAKS (Director) is a reformed actor. Since his first job as director, Enter Laughing, there’s been no time for acting, enviable as his reputation was. In the short time since that smash hit there have been Nobody Loves an Albatross, Generation and Half a Sixpence. In this last he worked with ONNA WHITE, reformed dancer, who has here staged the musical numbers and dances, as she did there. Miss White had previously been applauded for her assignments in The Music Man and Irma La Douce. From the look of it, mutual success makes happy collaborators.

And so we have the Fryer, Carr, Harris, Lansbury, Lawrence, Lee, Herman, Dennis, White, Saks ensemble. Enough to make up one of Mame’s posher, more intimate parties. Cheers!