The Depression saw virtually all of Broadway's major composers slumming in Hollywood, where the livin' was easy and the money was jumpin'. Kern and Berlin, Gershwin and Youmans, Rodgers and Porter all headed west, temporarily transplanting the giants of musical comedy. The scores these fellows wrote for the screen were not musical comedy, exactly; give them Astaire & Rogers, and they would write a collection of sometimes spectacularly good songs tailored for Astaire & Rogers (although only generically fitting the specific characters they were playing in any given film).
"The Wizard of Oz" [Warner Home Video] was something else. M-G-M hired Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who had enjoyed moderate success on Broadway but weren't gold-plated like George and Cole and Irving. (Arlen had already written some of the most impressive blues-tinged songs ever heard, mind you.) Harold and Yip wrote a fanciful musical comedy in 1937, Hooray for What!, and M-G-M decided that was the sort of score they wanted for "Oz." The song "In the Shade of the New Apple Tree" — an olden-type ballad in tongue-in-cheek, blues-tinged style — seems to have clinched the job. The pair had also written top-rate material for clowns like Groucho Marx ("Lydia the Tattooed Lady") and Bert Lahr, which might well have entered into the discussion.
The end result was that "The Wizard of Oz" featured what can be termed a full-scale musical comedy score, with song after song tailored to character and plot. I suppose you could say that "The Wizard of Oz" has the strongest musical comedy score of the pre-Oklahoma! era; the only competition might be Show Boat and perhaps Anything Goes. On musical comedy terms, "Oz" is arguably stronger than Show Boat; it is certainly more familiar, song-by-song, than most musical comedy scores of any era. Arlen was at his happiest, musically speaking; no blues here, just delight after delight. The magic of "Oz," though, comes from Harburg. I won't say he was at his best here, as he was also at his best elsewhere. But musical comedy lyrics don't come much better.
Which brings us to the new-and-restored DVD release of "The Wizard of Oz." No, this is not the first new-and-restored DVD release of "The Wizard of Oz." Those of you who have the latest incarnation, from 1999, might well ask if an upgrade is warranted. The answer is: This new "Oz," run through Warner's Ultra-Resolution process, is indeed a striking improvement over the last. The extras from before are joined by additional ones. Buyers have two options, a two-disc "Special Edition" and a three-disc "Collector's Edition"; the latter has even more extras. (My favorites remain the deleted version of Ray Bolger's full "Heart" dance and Harold's home movies.) The Collector's Edition also includes five earlier screen versions of the story, including a silent featuring Oliver Hardy (in pre-Stan Laurel days), as well as facsimiles of the premiere invitation and ticket, dazzling color promo stills and more. If you love "Oz," you'll want the new three-disc set, even though it means replacing the old. For those who have been thinking that maybe you'd someday get "The Wizard of Oz" on DVD, now is the time.
Walt Disney's "Cinderella" [Disney DVD] has always taken a back seat to "Dumbo," "Pinocchio" and "Snow White" (with all those little men). "Cinderella" came along in 1950, at a time when the studio was in trouble. Walt poured everything he had into his sixth major animated feature, and it paid off handsomely, propelling Disney into the second half of the century with resumed energy and a box-office hit.
The film itself is weak, as these things go. There is a great deal of imagination on display in the animation and design department, but the story development is — well, not very developed. And the songs can't begin to compete with "Whistle While You Work," "When You Wish upon a Star," "Give a Little Whistle" and all the others. "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" has generated a following of sorts, but me, I'll take Jiminy Cricket. Even so, this first-time on-DVD "Cinderella" is perfectly watchable and, in its restored state, impressively colored. The two-disc set is loaded with features, although I'm afraid they pale in comparison to what "Oz" has wrought. So let's call "Cinderella" better-than-remembered and visually striking. But the main characters just don't grab you, leaving the whole relatively nonmagical. Walt Disney's Cinderella — the character, not the movie — has quite a following, as anyone who's been to one of Disney's several Worlds can tell you. But her enduring fame comes from memories of "Cinderella," not the movie itself.
Acorn Media has given us "Broadway's Lost Treasures III", another installment of Christopher Cohen's compilation of scenes from vintage Tony Award telecasts. As before, the DVD contains sequences that musical theatre fans are sure to want to see. Similarly, the new edition has raised the same old minor qualifications. With all that golden material in the archives, must we really spend time with scenes from Fosse, Five Guys Named Moe and the recent revival of Into the Woods?
This is a difficult complaint to assess. Sure, we want to see the old stuff; scenes with legendary stars, scenes from shows that have more or less disappeared from view. But scenes from before my time are not necessarily before your time. A number from Crazy for You might be of little interest to someone who saw the show two or three times, but to a 25-year-old musical theatre fan it is as valid as "Step to the Rear" (from How Now, Dow Jones) might be to you. And face it, musical theatre needs those 25-year-old fans, and plenty of them.
The present disc is hosted by Tommy Tune, Carol Channing, Harvey Fierstein and Robert Goulet, which I suppose is why we get Goulet singing Rose Marie. (He may be old, but he's not that old.) Even so, it's hard to complain when Mr. Cohen gives us Gwen Verdon, Alfred Drake, Julie Andrews, Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Zero Mostel and Ethel Merman. Kristin Chenoweth, too. The "Lost Treasures" DVDs are peppered with segments from the 1971 Tonys, which featured 25 years worth of award winners re-creating their famous roles. That was arguably the most fascinating Tony telecast and one that understandably lives on in the memories of those who saw it. These segments were necessarily brief, but it didn't matter at the time because they were part of a string of jewels. Presented individually, their impact is unfortunately diminished.
As with the earlier editions of "Broadway's Lost Treasures," most of this DVD aired last summer on PBS. Each DVD has included a bonus section of material not included in the telecast; in this case, it includes Jonathan Pryce singing "The American Dream" (from Miss Saigon) and the aforementioned "That Certain Girl," which really is a delight.
So put aside the qualms, and sit back and watch Jerry Orbach of Promises! Promises! work himself into a frenzy because "She Likes Basketball." Now, that's Broadway!
—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.