The earliest available Sondheim musical on the DVD shelf is Sweeney Todd. As the first national tour ended in the summer of 1981, the show was taped at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and televised the following year. This was not the massive Broadway production, nor the Broadway company; but close enough, as Angela Lansbury recreated her role opposite George Hearn (who had replaced Len Cariou in New York). What's more, two of the hauntingest original cast performances — Edmund Lyndeck's Judge Turpin and Ken Jennings' Tobias — are preserved.
Sunday in the Park with George, which had a shorter run, was taped on stage at the Booth Theatre following the closing of the show in 1985. Many, though not all, of the original cast were brought back for the affair. Thus, we had Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Charles Kimbrough and Dana Ivey in what was more or less the show as it appeared on Broadway.
Into the Woods, too, was taped late in the original Broadway run. Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Tom Aldredge, Robert Westenberg — most of whom had long left the cast — reprised their roles.
Sondheim's next show, Passion, was also preserved (on film) following its relatively brief run. Donna Murphy, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie recreated their roles. Both of these, unlike the other items in this group, were directed not by some television director but by the original stage director (and librettist) James Lapine. Other Sondheim musicals which have been preserved include the 1990 New York City Opera production of A Little Night Music, starring Sally Ann Howes, Regina Resnick and George Lee Andrews (which was telecast but never commercially released); a 1993 made-for-TV version of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler; the 1996 Donmar Warehouse production of Company (telecast but apparently never commercially released); the 2001 pay-for-view telecast of the Broadway production of the anthology revue Putting it Together, starring Carol Burnett; and the 2006 Broadway revival of Company, starring Raul Esparza.
Not included above are various taped concert versions of Sondheim musicals (leading off with "Follies in Concert") and various tributes, benefits and the like. There are also non-commercial Sondheim items in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Of keen interest to anyone interested in the Sondheim/Prince era is an original cast item that does not actually include the show itself. "Original Cast Album: Company," D. A. Pennebaker's documentary look at the Company cast recording sessions, is absolutely riveting. And then there's the Sondheim musical written not for stage but television, the one-hour "Evening Primrose." Starring Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr, this was telecast one November evening in 1966 after which it more or less disappeared. Now, as part of Sondheim's 80th birthday celebration, "Evening Primrose" is finally scheduled to be commercially released on DVD in May.
We should also mention film adaptations of several Sondheim musicals. These range from West Side Story to Sweeney Todd, with Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Little Night Music along the way. Sondheim's work written expressly for film falls outside our field of study, although two items retain our interest: "The Last of Sheila," Herb Ross' 1973 whodunit with screenplay by Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; and Alain Resnais' 1974 "Stavisky," with a luscious score by the master.
The most fascinating original cast preservation, alas, isn't on the list. The original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures was taped at the Winter Garden in June 1976, a few weeks before it closed, for telecast in Japan only. Perhaps the most artistically valuable of these preserved Sondheim musicals — next to Sweeney Todd? — this Pacific Overtures has never been commercially available for viewing in the United States. Copies are said to be floating around in the middle of the sea, as they say, and the tape can be seen at the collection of the Museum of Television and Radio. And most instructive it is, too! —especially for people who never saw the original productions of the Sondheim/Prince musicals.
Mr. Sondheim's birthday has spilled over into this month's DVD column, leaving limited space for other titles.
Leading the list are two equally intriguing but very different items. Mad Men Season Three [Lionsgate] follows the excellent seasons one and two. Don't do anything drastic seems to be a rule of episodic TV; or, rather, only do drastic things sparingly (like when you need to bolster ratings). Season Three is notable in that creator Matthew Weiner goes drastic frequently, especially in the final episodes. Basic assumptions and the bedrock of the relationships were thoroughly upended, to the extent that Season Four will necessitate a whole set of new inter-relationships. Because Mr. Weiner is so good at this, he leaves viewers with burning questions about these Mad Men (and equally mad women). Season Four, which will start unreeling on AMC in July, promises a whole new round of beginnings (although one fears that at least one of our favorite characters shall return no more). The four-disc set includes commentaries from Weiner and Co. accompanying each episode, which needless to say are fascinating, plus three documentaries which address the underlying history of the Season Three era. There is also a postcard illustration of the new Betty Draper Barbie doll. That's right, a Betty Draper Barbie. (Do they accessorize it with liquor bottles?) Lionsgate has also enclosed the following disclaimer: "The content of the 'Mad Men Season Three' DVD set contains adult situations, profanity, adultery, debauchery, indecency, depravity, greed and moral corruption. Just wait 'til next season." As before, I wholeheartedly recommend that you reward yourself with your own private "Mad Men" Marathon.
Studio warehouse shelves are overloaded with forgotten films, some of which are claimed to be unjustly overlooked but few of which actually are. Make Way for Tomorrow [Criterion], from 1937, didn't sell tickets and quickly faded from view; it tells of an elderly couple, in the Depression era, who lose their home; their children dutifully take them in, splitting the oldsters asunder. "Make Way for Tomorrow" is heartbreaking and tearjerking, and quite wonderful. When director Leo McCarey won the Oscar for that year's "The Awful Truth," he said "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture."
McCarey was a significant film director, if more or less forgotten. His big hits "Going My Way" (and its sequel "The Bells of St. Marys") and "Love Affair" (and its remake "An Affair to Remember") indicate that he was good with the emotions, a notion that is certainly furthered by "Make Way for Tomorrow." He was in actuality a comedy pioneer; he started out making "Our Gang" one-reelers, had the foresight to pair Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and went on to make not only the screwball classic "The Awful Truth" but the immortal "Duck Soup." For theatre fans, "Make Way for Tomorrow" is a special treat: here is the great Victor Moore (1876-1962), who attained stardom in 1904 in George M. Cohan's Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway and went on to be head clown in four Gershwin musicals (including Oh, Kay!, Funny Face and Of Thee I Sing) plus Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Irving Berlin's Louisiana Purchase. Moore, in a decidedly non-comic performance, is well matched — or maybe surpassed — by Beulah Bondi as his wife; Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter are the grown children. Criterion has rescued "Make Way for Tomorrow" and given it the first-class treatment deserved by an all-time classic — which, it turns out, it just might be.
Two more items of interest. Wes Anderson, the director who gave us the richly intriguing "Royal Tenenbaums," returns with the even more satisfying Fantastic Mr. Fox [Fox]. Turns out Anderson is a master in the animation field, too, enhanced by his choice of voices (led by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray). Based on a story by Roald Dahl, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a delight for adults, children or both.
And An Education [Sony Pictures Classics] is one of those young girl-meets-older-man movies, but one with a difference. To begin with, it's or more accurately to end with, it earned Oscar nominations for best picture, leading lady Carey Mulligan, and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Peter Sarsgaard is the man in question, and very good as well. For theatre fans, "An Education" provides a glimpse of Alfred Molina — currently thrilling Broadway in Red. Also on hand are Dominic Cooper, of History Boys, and the eminent Emma Thompson.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)