For fans of movie musicals on DVD, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (as Meredith Willson once wrote about something altogether different). The studios have continued their habit of giving us new and improved versions of old favorites, featuring (hopefully) clearer vision and special features that are even more special than the last set of special features. Recent months have seen this treatment lavished on "Mary Poppins" and "The Wizard of Oz," leaving us to wonder: where is "The Sound of Music"?
Here it is, on cue. 20th Century Fox has brought us the 40th Anniversary Edition of The Sound of Music, lavishly fitted with new items. To whit: an "all-new" special anniversary introduction by Julie Andrews, an "all new" audio commentary by Julie Andrews (and Christopher Plummer), an "all new" retrospective documentary and four "all-new featurettes created exclusively for this DVD release."
Yes, lots of it is "all new" (although some of the included footage and interviews dates from the last century). But no need to quibble; these features will be of great interest to fans of the film. This is not necessarily a given; recent releases of other DVDs have presented us with some special features that have almost nothing to do with the film to which they are appended. The "The Sound of Music" features are intelligently assembled by Michael Kantor, who was responsible for the smashing 2004 documentary "Broadway: The American Musical." All told, this new 40th Anniversary Edition will delight fans of "The Sound of Music."
One of the featurettes is a visit with the seven actors who portrayed the Von Trapp children back in 1965. The septet was trotted out for a recent press event in New York, complete with the original Bil Baird Marionettes, and they made quite a sight. They all seemed to belong to the same friendly clan, more or less; this despite the fact that the average age, 40 years later, seemed to be about 58. Also in attendance was Ms. Andrews, who after 40 years looked about 60. Go figure. The marionettes looked the same as in the film.
An honor roll of the key people associated with the film was read, after which Julie piped in "and Irwin Kostal." Kostal was the music department, serving as supervisor, arranger and conductor, and winning his second Oscar in the process. Irv was one of our great theatrical orchestrators, both on stage and film; he arranged and conducted Julie's first two personality albums for RCA, as well as "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall" and "Mary Poppins." Kostal and his ilk tend to be overlooked and forgotten, so Ms. Andrews' touching and classy salute deserves special notice.
Like "The Sound of Music," Lionel Bart's Oliver! [Columbia] picked up five Oscars (including Best Picture). Six, I suppose you could say, as choreographer Onna White received a well-deserved honorary award. "Oliver!" made quite a splash on its initial release in 1968, although it seems to have somewhat receded in memory (at least in comparison with "The Sound of Music"). While I have not seen the 1998 release of this title, the video and audio on this new DVD do not bowl me over, exactly. The special features are — shall we say — minimal. On the other hand, the new "Oliver!" DVD has been issued with a highly unusual bonus, a CD (in a second DVD case) containing "the original 14-song motion picture soundtrack." The packaging points out, "soundtrack not available Anywhere Else!" Why, I wonder? One listening, I suppose, explains it; despite the success of the film and the Oscar-winning musical adaptation by Johnny Green, the soundtrack pales before the still available original Broadway cast album.
Even so, "Oliver!" offers an array of grand "small pleasures," and who can deny us these (as Mr. Bart asked)? Among them is the aforementioned choreography. Broadway never bothered to honor Onna White, despite her consistently entertaining work (including The Music Man and Mame). Eight Tony nominations and no wins, which is what happens when you keep going up against the likes of Robbins, Fosse and Champion. Onna's "Oliver!" specializes in grand tableaux, with hundreds of signing and dancing Londoners cramming the screen.
Speaking of "The Music Man," Broadway's own Marion Paroo can be glimpsed on Barbara Cook: Bell Telephone Hour, 1960-1965 [VAI]. Here you have Barbara Cook and the Buffalo Bills — the barbershop quartet that backed her up at the Majestic — re-creating their counterpoint duet "Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?" Barbara also sings "Till There Was You," rather awkwardly staged with her singing to an anonymous boy from the chorus. It is to be assumed that most readers of this column never saw Cook-the ingenue on stage; here she is, folks. The selections and staging on this DVD is not always vibrant, but Barbara is.
The vintage Cook is drawn from the "Bell Telephone Hour," a popular weekly variety series favored by grandparents and the like. Cook is presented in seven segments, dating from 1960, 1962 and 1965. The earliest, featuring the above-mentioned selections from The Music Man, is of obvious interest. The second, a Civil War medley, isn't musical theatre; but here you have Barbara singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The next pairs our heroine with Alfred Drake for a "Salute to Vienna." While you might not be invigorated by "The Merry Widow," Drake is in fine shape (at 47). Musical theatre footage of Alfred doesn't turn up all too frequently, which gives us another reason to recommend this DVD.
Other segments are of the up-and-down variety. "Salute to the 1962 Broadway Season" pairs Cook with Robert Goulet; they give us a rendition of "Lovely" that I don't suppose would make the composer all-too happy. (Other saluted shows include No Strings and Milk and Honey.) "Milestones in American Love Songs" gives us "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" and a medley of mostly old-tyme songs. "Salute to the American Girl," with Goulet again, somehow trots out "If It's Good Enough for Grandma" from "Bloomer Girl." Salute to the American Grandma? (Cook starred in a 1956 TV version of this musical for "Producer's Showcase," which has not yet appeared on DVD. Despite its weak production values, Cook's performance and the re-creation of Agnes de Mille's "Civil War Ballet" make this required watching for musical theatre fans.) The DVD ends with Barbara joined by Anita Gillette in a two-song tribute to World War II, consisting of Loesser & Schwartz's "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" and Styne & Cahn's "I'll Walk Alone."
A brief on-line search indicates that the archives of the "Bell Telephone Hour" are replete with potentially fascinating material for musical theatre fans. Let us be especially glad that the folks at VAI have chosen to favor us with a treasury of Barbara Cook. —Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.