THE DVD SHELF: "High School Musical," "Jerry Herman's Broadway" and John Ford Classics

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: "High School Musical," "Jerry Herman's Broadway" and John Ford Classics This month’s column examines the wildfire hit "High School Musical," the Hollywood Bowl concert "Jerry Herman’s Broadway" and the classic John Ford films "Stagecoach" and "The Informer."
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Depending on your circle of friends and associates, you might have heard tell of something called High School Musical [Disney Home Video]. This was a TV movie from the Disney Channel, which first aired on January 20; the premiere pulled more than seven million viewers, with more and more people watching the repeat showings. The CD [Disney 61426] is a platinum seller, which has been known to top 100,000 sales in a week. Now, Disney has issued the TV movie on DVD. To say that "High School Musical" is a massive success with girls in the under-13 group is an understatement; it also seems to attract a large share of boys. "High School Musical" is not a Broadway musical; not yet, anyway, although Disney quickly recognized they have a potential goldmine. "High School Musical" is presently being developed for the stock and amateur market, with an eye toward something grander should things work out. Talk about a built-in audience.

Broadway-caliber "High School Musical" is not, at least in its original version. The songs are more pop than theatrical; the story was devised as a TV movie for children, as opposed to something you might find along Shubert Alley. Even so, "High School Musical" is not without amusement. (The young gal composer-in-residence, who looks sort of like Passionella before the transformation, is snidely referred to by the villainess as a "sawed-off Sondheim"; one of the basketball players confesses that he makes a mean crème brulee, which leads to several crème brulee jokes.) As for the songs? I don’t expect Marc Shaiman need go biting his nails in fear, nor Michael John LaChiusa either. But director/choreographer Kenny Ortega has done a savvy job, thrilling the kids while offering at least some amusement for the adults in the audience.

But consider that gazillions of youngsters across the country are absolutely enthralled by a movie about teens trying out for the school musical; a movie that is lukewarm on geek activities, like varsity basketball, but glorifies musical theatre above all else. (The over-the-top drama teacher is played by Alyson Reed, who starred on Broadway as Marilyn Monroe in Ortega’s 1983 musical Marilyn, which she followed with Cassie in the ill-fated Chorus Line movie.) How many kids is "High School Musical" going to bring into tryouts for the next school play? How many kids and their parents is "High School Musical" going to bring into the next touring show to hit Smalltown, USA? "High School Musical" can be seen as a secret marketing tool for live theatre, and one that is being spread across the pop culture in a manner that the theatre industry couldn’t hope to achieve. Within a few years, I expect they’ll be producing it in every high school in the land.

The musicals of Jerry Herman are currently back on the boards, with Mame at Kennedy Center, Hello, Dolly! at Paper Mill, and Mack & Mabel in the West End. The new DVD Jerry Herman’s Broadway [Image Entertainment] presents just that, in a 1993 concert recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl. Here you have all the songs as performed by a host of Broadway favorites: Carol Channing, Bea Arthur, Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, George Hearn, Davis Gaines, Rita Moreno, Leslie Uggams, Karen Morrow and more. (This performance was a mere 13 years ago, but it somehow seems a very long 13 years.)

The music sounds great, with Don Pippin — the legendary musical director of five Herman shows, plus a few other little items like Oliver! and A Chorus Line — leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic through a spirited two hours. Highlights include especially fine performances of "I Won’t Send Roses" by Feinstein and three Mame songs by Uggams. Jerry is there, too, with "The Best of Times." All in all, it’s a festival for Herman fans.

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John Wayne has countless partisans across the land, although I suppose there aren’t all that many of them amongst theatregoers (of the stage variety, anyway). Why then, you might wonder, do you find The John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection [Warner Home Entertainment] in this column? Because of "Stagecoach," the 1939 film that made Wayne a box-office star. This is a Western, I suppose you have to say, as it takes place — well, on a stagecoach. But it is first and foremost a character study, and a superb one.

I suppose you could say "Stagecoach" is something like "Grand Hotel" on wheels. Each of the nine characters has a story in progress; due to proximity, the stories become intertwined. The characters are engrossing, and the performers — including Clare Trevor, John Carradine, Andy Devine and especially Thomas Mitchell (who won an Oscar in the process) — are finely etched. This is a wonderful film, even if it is a John Wayne western. The press material tells us that Orson Welles admitted to watching "Stagecoach" 40 times before beginning "Citizen Kane." This must have been quite a feat, back in the days before The Late Show, VHS and pay-per-view. If Welles, a man prone to hyperbole, really did watch "Stagecoach" 40 times, I hope he had a lot of popcorn on hand.

The two-disc special edition of "Stagecoach" is accompanied by seven other Wayne-Ford titles. (It is also available individually.) "The Searchers" usually turns up on great film lists; it is 96 on the A.F.I.’s list of 100 great movies. ("Stagecoach" is #63.) This is the one where Wayne goes searching for his young niece, Natalie Wood, who is held captive by a band of Comanches. It has been given far grander treatment than the other titles, with an "ultimate collectors edition" including snapshots, a facsimile of the original press kit, and even a comic book version of the film. Other titles include "The Long Voyage Home," a World War II film adapted from one acts by Eugene O’Neill. Wayne plays Ole Olsen, with a Swedish accent. Released along with (but sold separately from) "The John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection" comes The John Ford Collection [Warner Home Entertainment]. The box consists of five Ford films which did not feature Wayne. The highlight here is the classic "The Informer," which won Oscars for Ford and star Victor McLaglen. This 1935 film is old and dated, but retains its power and then some. McLaglen is hounded and tortured, and unforgettable. Also in the box is Ford’s prior film with McLaglen, "The Lost Patrol," and "Mary of Scotland," starring Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March.

Steven Suskin, author of the recently released "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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