Live theatre is ephemeral. Write a novel, make a film, paint a painting; people can read or view it decades — even centuries — later. But once the scenery is carted off, a particular production of a play or musical is a thing of the past. Since the advent of the original cast album, many musicals have left behind an important record (in the form of a record). A relative handful of non-musicals have gone into the recording studio as well, but this is an infinitesimal minority. Certain musicals and plays have been preserved on video, and many can be viewed in the archives of the Performing Arts Research Collection at Lincoln Center. These, though, are not readily accessible.
Since 1967, the annual Tony Award telecasts have preserved songs from any number of nominated musicals. (Earlier, excerpts were broadcast on various TV variety shows, with Ed Sullivan leading the way.) Acorn Media has released a fair selection of Tony excerpts on three DVDs, under the title "Broadway's Lost Treasures." Last year, the three volumes were packaged into a box set, with a fourth DVD containing scenes from non-musicals. Many fans already owned the musical DVDs, so Acorn has now released the bonus disc separately. The Best of the Tony Award: The Plays contains brief scenes from 19 plays. There's not all that much you can tell about a play from a two-minute snippet. What I have found, somewhat to my surprise, is that well-chosen snippets make a powerful souvenir of individual performances.
The obvious place to start is with the earliest of these scenes, from Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope (1968). James Earl Jones gave what remains, to this day, one of the most remarkable stage performances I've ever seen. This is only approximated in the clip, as they've chosen a group scene with about a dozen actors, including Jane Alexander and Lou Gilbert. (I had totally forgotten Gilbert, but this clip reminds me how good he was, too, as Goldie, the trainer.) This might be a somewhat different James Earl Jones than viewers might expect. The later and more familiar Jones is also present on the DVD, in the scene from August Wilson's Fences in which he delivers that blistering speech about what he owes to his son (Courtney B. Vance). Great acting, brutally powerful and unforgettable.
Other scenes include a clutch of memorable performers in memorable performances. John Lithgow and B.D. Wong in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly; Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage; a clip from Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenzweig, in which Robert Klein reminds us how valuable he was to that play; Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver demonstrating the machine-gun dialogue of David Mamet's Speed-the Plow; and even Art Carney, in a scene from Brian Friel's Lovers. (We see so much Friel nowadays, why doesn't anyone dust off this one?) I did not think I needed to see a scene from King Hedley II, but on came Viola Davis delivering Wilson's "I ain't raisin' no kid to have somebody shoot him" speech. This heart-wrenching tirade won Davis a much-deserved Tony Award; this mere snippet of footage, in itself, makes is a lesson in acting, thereby demonstrating the value of "The Best of the Tony Award: The Plays."
Who played the male lead in "The Philadelphia Story"? Cary Grant, of course. And how about "Sabrina"? Humphrey Bogart. Yes; but both films began life as hit Broadway comedies, with Joseph Cotten opposite Katharine Hepburn in the first and Margaret Sullavan in the second.
Cotten had a major Hollywood career, with Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" and Carol Reed's "The Third Man" among his credits, along with "Gaslight," "Portrait of Jennie" and "Duel in the Sun." But when the studios could get a Grant or a Bogart, a journeyman like Cotten wasn't even in the running.
On Broadway, though, he remained a popular leading man. Cotten started out on stage with Welles in 1937, in the Mercury Theatre's Julius Caesar. By 1939, Cotten was starring as C.K. Dexter Haven opposite Hepburn in Broadway's Philadelphia Story. When Welles went Hollywood, Cotten served as Jed Leland to Orson's Kane. (If you can for a moment picture Welles as Woody Allen — which, admittedly, makes quite a picture — Cotten serves in the Tony Roberts role.) Cotten moved on to such films as "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Farmer's Daughter," among many others. Even so, he returned to Broadway for starring roles in Sabrina Fair, Once More with Feeling and Calculated Risk.
Stage performances are ephemeral, as noted above in our Tony Award discussion, but Cotten's value can clearly be seen in The Third Man, which has just been reissued in one of those smashingly assembled two-CD packages from the Criterion Collection. "The Third Man" is probably Cotten's finest film; many consider it one of the best British-made movies ever. This is the one in which he plays Holly Martins, writer of second-rate pulp fiction, on the loose in post-war Vienna trying to solve the murder of his childhood friend Harry Lime. Welles, in one of the cinema's most impressive star turns, manages to turn up late in the movie — Harry is not so dead, after all — and steal it, despite limited screen time. Welles did not direct the film; Carol Reed did. Nor did he write it; it was all Graham Greene, with the exception of that obviously Wellesian "cuckoo clock" speech. Even so, Welles looms over "The Third Man," like that famous shot of Harry Lime's oversized shadow on the wall.
"The Third Man" gives us a chance to see the artistry of both Cotten and Welles (himself a wayward Broadwayite). And it is totally mesmerizing as well. Be forewarned, though, that it will take a long time to get that zither music out of your inner ear.
* Also of note is the second DVD in what is likely to be a long line from the "High School Musical" franchise. This is the 2006 Disney TV movie in which the star basketball player hangs up his sneakers in order to join the drama club. Don't laugh; this little item, which started as just another made-for-cable kid's show, has caused a veritable revolution across the land, making it cool to be in the school play. Now, even the basketball players want to audition.
A stage version, High School Musical: The Musical, is currently on tour, and the musical is obviously sure to become a stock and amateur staple. Last fall, Disney sent out a 40-date concert tour featuring most of the TV cast. High School Musical: The Concert (Disney) has now been released in what they call the "Extreme Access Pass" edition. This gives you live highlights from the concert, along with some of the cast members singing additional songs. (Drew Seeley subs for Zac Efron, who was off making the Hairspray movie.) Also included is a making-of short and an interactive feature which gives you alternate camera angles so you can edit your own version of "High School Musical: The Musical." (Do you think we could get this for West Side Story?) Oh, and they also include a brief preview of "High School Musical 2," coming to the Disney Channel on Aug. 17.
"High School Musical: The Musical" might be kid's stuff, folks, but this is where the next generation of theatre audiences is being groomed. Ever so much more promising than in years past, when expressing interest in Broadway shows was in many circles distinctly uncool.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)