THE DVD SHELF: "The History Boys" and a New "Music Edition" of Fosse's "All That Jazz"

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: "The History Boys" and a New "Music Edition" of Fosse's "All That Jazz" This month's column discusses the film version of the Alan Bennett's 2006 Tony Award-winning The History Boys plus Bob Fosse's fascinating "All That Jazz."
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Alan Bennett's The History Boys [Fox Home Entertainment] made many friends when it visited the Broadhurst last April, with more than a few discerning dramagoers deeming it the finest play on Broadway in years. Prior to the New York engagement, Richard Griffiths and his colleagues from the National Theatre recreated their stage roles for the screen. The motion picture version opened this past fall, and did not have quite the same impact here or abroad.

But don't let that bother you. The History Boys is, or are, just as good on screen as on stage. People who enjoyed the play will feel like they have bumped into old friends. Hector, Tottie, Posner, Dakin and the rest are here, looking just like they did on the stage (not surprisingly, seeing as how the actors sandwiched the job between their London and U.S. engagements). There is an added element, in that we see them out of their stage element and schoolhouse garb; the first shot is of Posner, looking like a skinny young middle class teenager, riding his bicycle through the streets of Yorkshire.

Bob Crowley's stylized stage scenery was simply perfect, garnering him a Tony Award. On screen, though, the first thing we see in the schoolroom — after Hector's magazine clippings and movie posters — is a motley bunch of age-beaten tables and desks, the wooden surfaces worn through in much the same weather-beaten manner as Hector himself. Those of us who loved this play are right back into it, and it's an especially warm welcome.

Nicholas Hytner has recreated his direction, enhancing it along the way. Bennett, of course, knows his way around diverse media. He has filled in much of the action and taken the boys out of the school and into the streets; at the same time, though, he has significantly altered the ending. The one flaw I found upon revisiting the play was that it seemed to have a second, grafted-on ending in the after-the-fact confrontation between Posner and Irwin, the teacher-turned-TV journalist. Bennett has seen fit to omit this and simplify his end-of-story wrapup, with highly beneficial results. To say that the cast is just as good as before is to understate things. Mr. Griffiths, alone, gives a somewhat different performance; different, I suppose, in that his bulk is not quite as overwhelming on the screen as it was in the theatre, where he physically dominated his scenes. The change makes him somewhat more vulnerable, although just as expert.

Frances de la Tour, in something of the same way, seems to have a larger presence. Does she have more screen time than stage time? Or is it simply what Hytner does with her? On film, her character is very much central to the piece. Stephen Campbell Moore seems younger and more likable as Irwin, perhaps because of the cut material; and headmaster Clive Merrison is as reprehensible as before.

The boys are just superb. Samuel Barnett (Posner) and Dominic Cooper (Dakin) are as every bit as good as they were at the Broadhurst. Jamie Parker (as the piano-playing, church-going Scripps) and James Corden (as the heavy-set Timms) make even stronger impacts than before; so does the not-so-bright athlete Rudge (Russell Tovey), helped out by the camera work in his final scene with de la Tour. So we have now four or five principal history boys, instead of the two who dominated onstage.

The usual rule of thumb is that if you loved the play, you needn't bother with the film. With The History Boys, the Messrs. Bennett and Hytner have sent along a present to theatregoers, allowing us to savor one of our more memorable recent evenings in the theatre.

"It's showtime, folks!" And if you've ever seen All That Jazz [Fox Home Entertainment], you might well remember just exactly what that means: bring on the cigarettes, pills, booze and Visine. Bob Fosse's 1979 film has been re-released in what they call a "special music edition," which means that the DVD has a feature which allows direct access to the musical numbers.

Those of us who were working on Broadway back in 1974 (song cue: "On Broadway") remember how Chicago — the original musical, not the revival — went into rehearsal in the fall with great fanfare, the theatre party favorite of the season.

Legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse did the show as a vehicle for his estranged wife, the legendary Gwen Verdon; out of guilt for his treatment of her, some say. Within days, Fosse had a heart attack and the whole thing was postponed. Unlike in most similar cases, the postponed show was actually produced following Fosse's recovery, opening in June 1975. In the shadow, alas, of A Chorus Line.

Four years later, out came "All That Jazz" — about a legendary director-choreographer (played by Roy Scheider, who looked like a relatively healthy version of Fosse with slightly more hair). He goes into rehearsal with a musical called not Chicago but NY/LA, starring his estranged wife (played by Leland Palmer, who created the Verdon-like role in Fosse's Pippin). Within days, the fictional director has a heart attack and, following a parade of increasingly macabre production numbers, dies.

Fosse finally did succumb to heart trouble in 1987; "All That Jazz" came before, but it pretty much forecasts his death. Let it be said that this autobiographically fictional film paints him as an impossible, maniacally manipulative monster. If someone other than Fosse made this movie, one can imagine that lawsuits would have flown. But Fosse is painting the picture himself, with his own paint set and dance steps. This is the story he wants to tell, and he is certainly a good storyteller.

He also has a good cast to work with. Scheider, a rather unlikely choice, is the perfect stand-in for Bob. (He served as a last-minute replacement for his "Jaws"-castmate Richard Dreyfus, who began rehearsals and would have made a very different-style Fosse.) Ms. Palmer — who is now apparently a rabbi in San Francisco — does a strong job as Gwen; she has an especially striking scene in which she spars with Fosse (or, rather, Joe Gideon) while rehearsing a dance number. Erzsebet Foldi, a child actor playing Nicole Fosse, has the very same sort of scene, acting while dancing with her father. Or, rather, Roy Scheider. Foldi, who was 12 at the time and left the business soon thereafter, is immensely effective. The third side of the triangle of ladies is Ann Reinking, playing — well, playing Ann Reinking. She was at the height of her dance powers in those days, and I don't know that she ever equaled this performance. Jessica Lange plays the angel of death, the only character with whom Gideon is civil; Ben Vereen plays a version of himself, or perhaps Sammy Davis; Cliff Gorman, who starred on Broadway in Lenny but was passed over when Fosse directed the film version, plays an actor making a film about Lenny Bruce; and John Lithgow is wonderful as a director hungry to step in for the ailing Gideon. Lithgow was almost 30 years younger than he is today, and the film reveals just how good a dramatic actor he was. (Fosse apparently believed that during his recovery, the producers of the postponed Chicago approached Hal Prince to step in; it seems to me, though, like Lithgow is playing Ed Sherin.) Familiar Broadway dancers of the era abound, and the non-dancing cast of the show-within-the-show includes veterans Sammy Smith (of Fosse's How to Succeed) and Mary McCarty (of Chicago).

For people interested in Broadway musicals of the era, let me tell you — this is precisely how it was. The backstage drama of A Chorus Line is highly theatrical and considerably more entertaining; but that audition is not to be taken literally. "All That Jazz," in its audition and rehearsal scenes, is nothing if not authentic; the people, the locales and even all that sweat precisely picture the Broadway world of the time. Not only the performers, but all the staff people; looking around the rehearsal room you see typical types like stage manager Phil Freidman, lighting designer Jules Fisher and musical director Stanley Lebowsky (who, as it happens, wrote the featured song "Take Off with Us"). For some of us, "All That Jazz" is an exercise in nostalgia — which was presumably not what Fosse intended at all.

The aforementioned "Take Off with Us" is worth pointing out to Fosse fans who have only seen recreations of his work. This number was staged new and fresh by Fosse and a group of hand-picked "Fosse dancers," and filmed — presumably — within days of completion. This is what the numbers in Sweet Charity and Pippin looked like when they were freshly-minted, bursting with originality, flair and more.

Yes, "All That Jazz" veers into the realm of — well, strangeness. Fosse is imagining his own death; he clearly has thought it all out at length, starring himself, and he leaves no stone unturned (if you will). The film turns dark and unpalatable, for me; but it is still quite something to see.

I last saw Fosse just after Labor Day, 1987. He was in the walk-through under the Minskoff Theatre, having just left the upstairs rehearsal studios where he was preparing the touring company of his revival of Sweet Charity. He was dressed in faded denim with cigarette dangling, snapping notes out of the side of his mouth to Gwen, who was trailing slightly behind. He looked, pretty much, like a run-down version of Roy Scheider in the final scenes of "All That Jazz," blood-shot and pressing his wrist to monitor his runaway pulse. It was never possible to view Fosse and Verdon without awe, for me anyway; but they both looked like ghosts. Within three weeks, the fatal heart attack anticipated by Fosse in "All That Jazz" cut him down.

"Bye, bye, love — I think I'm gonna die," as the song goes. It's showtime, folks!

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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