THE DVD SHELF: "What Makes Sammy Run?," "Mary Poppins," "Rent" and "Yentl"

News   THE DVD SHELF: "What Makes Sammy Run?," "Mary Poppins," "Rent" and "Yentl" We view the 1959 TV version of Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?"; the reissue of "Mary Poppins," with bonuses for theatregoers; the high def filming of the final days of Rent; and the "Director's Extended Edition" of Streisand's "Yentl."
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We have recently alluded to the recently released "Studio One Anthology" which contains a selection of dramas and musicals from the days of live television. Koch has followed this fascinating box with a single DVD of Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? This was not part of the CBS "Studio One" series, as it came from NBC. It is not technically live TV, either; the two-hour program (which comes to about 105 minutes without commercials) was telecast in two installments on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4, 1959. Sammy was actually aired in color, but the original has long since disappeared. A (black & white) kinescope of the first part has long been preserved, but the second was thought to have vanished. It reappeared in 2005 — it was safely in the collection of the Library of Congress, but mislabeled — and thanks to the Archive of American Television and Koch Vision it is now finally available for watching on your DVD player.

Schulberg's most famous novel was published in 1941, an instantaneous success offering an insider's view of the seamy goings-on within Hollywood. Schulberg came of age in Tinseltown, where his father, B.P., was one-time Paramount production chief; while writing the short story version of "Sammy," which was published in 1937, Schulberg was working as a script doctor for David O. Selznick (who can be seen as model for the grasping anti-hero). A pretty picture it isn't, which might explain why the novel never made it to the big screen. There were two television versions, though; a long-lost and not especially successful 1948 effort starring Jose Ferrer, and the 1959 NBC Sunday Showcase version. Which, it turns out, is very, very good.

Director-producer Delbert Mann, who had won an Oscar for "Marty" (derived from a television play he had earlier directed), does a fine job of keeping up with the fast-paced script by Schulberg and his brother Stuart. What keeps things crackling, though, is the cast. John Forsythe is extremely good in the central and top-billed role of Al Manheim, the theatre critic whom copyboy Sammy Glick latches onto. Barbara Rush plays screenwriter Kit Sargent, and Dina Merrill is Laurette, the daughter of the studio owner. All three are as good as I recall ever seeing them. Supporting players are strong as well, especially David Opatoshu as Sidney Feinman (the producer who Sammy stabs in the back); Milton Selzer as Julian Blumberg (the screenwriter who Sammy stabs in the back); and Norman Fell in a brief scene as Sammy's brother from the slums.

The focal point of the thing is Sammy, and he is played here by Larry Blyden (who the announcer notes is participating "by arrangement with Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song). I saw Blyden (1925-1975) on numerous occasions over the years, in such shows as The Apple Tree, the 1972 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for which his Hysterium won a Tony Award), Absurd Person Singular, and the original production of Stephen Sondheim's Frogs in the swimming pool at Yale. None of which prepared me for Blyden's performance here. He is creepy, ferocious, and dangerous, which makes for a fascinating "What Makes Sammy Run?" By the time this version was filmed in 1959, Schulberg was already quite a personage; he had followed up his ground-breaking early novel with screenplays for "On the Waterfront" (which won him a deserved Oscar) and "A Face in the Crowd." The success of the TV Sammy resulted in a Broadway musical version in 1964, with Budd and Stuart Schulberg collaborating with Abe Burrows and composer/lyricist Ervin Drake. Steve Lawrence starred in the rather rocky enterprise, which lasted over a year but closed in a sea of recriminations and red ink. Watching the 1959 TV version, we can almost smell a musical; Drake, a somewhat popular writer from the popular song field, wasn't quite able to make "Sammy" sing, though.

How to get people who already own a favorite movie on DVD to buy yet another release of said item? For the 45th Anniversary Edition of Mary Poppins [Disney], they have added two bonuses which makes this new "Poppins" of considerable interest to fans of the stage adaptation, at least. Yes, they have restored and remastered the film for the first time since the 40th Anniversary Edition, but that does not make a revolutionary difference. And they have rejiggered the bonus features, removing some and adding others. Most interesting, though, is "Mary Poppins from Page to Stage," which follows the piece from — well, you get the picture. The concentration is on the Broadway production, which is all to the good for our purposes. Tom Schumacher, Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Cameron Mackintosh, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Bob Crowley and more add to the discussion, which makes for a pretty informative "making of the musical" piece. (Note to Broadway songwriters who haven't yet had an international smash moneymaker: skip over the part where Mr. Drewe sits at the kitchen table in his little 200-year-old farmhouse in St. Sauveur la Vallee, France. Moss Hart would approve.) Add to this a full filmed version of the Broadway cast performing Matthew Bourne's staging of "Step in Time," apparently shot on the stage of the New Amsterdam, complete with audience reaction and Mr. Lee walking up and over the proscenium (with his harness clearly in view). That is quite a number theatre-wise; it can't compare with the film version by Marc Breaux and Deedee Wood, but Mr. Breaux and Ms. Wood were working with camera angles, multiple takes, and what all. Fans of the stage musical also get something of a cast album bonus: the Disney folks also include a downloadable MP3 of Brown and Lee performing the song.

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Rent closed on Sept. 7, 2008, after 12 years and 5,123 performances. The final perf was shot in High Definition, as they put it, and has been released as Rent: filmed LIVE on Broadway [Sony]. As a rule of thumb, the 5,123rd performance in the 12th year of a show is not quite the same as watching the original cast in the first three months; and of course, watching a filmed version of a stage musical is not nearly the same as seeing it — well, LIVE on Broadway. That said, this DVD version of Rent will likely be treasured by all those fans of the show that went back repeatedly during the run. Not a live performance on the stage before you, and not the original cast; but a very well made filming which looks and sounds pretty good. (Among the leads in the closing cast were Will Chase, currently appearing in the new The Story of My Life, and Eden Espinosa.) Bonus features include a documentary on the final days of the production; the final curtain call, with the cast joined by alumni for "Seasons of Love"; and a feature on the ticket lottery for that last performance. Rent fans who were disappointed in the 2005 film version of the musical are bound to stand up and shout, "Yes, this is what we meant!" *

Most readers of this column already have their own ideas about Barbra Streisand's Yentl [M-G-M/Fox]. Fans of "Yentl" will no doubt be thrilled, if not overwhelmed, by the two-DVD "Director's Extended Edition" of the 1983 film. The director in question is, of course, Ms. Streisand (who also produced and starred). Thus we have two complete versions of the film, the original theatrical cut plus the newly extended version introduced by Ms. Streisand (who also provides audio commentary). There are also deleted scenes and sundry other special and unusual bonuses, including things like "The Rehearsal Process with Materials from Barbra's Archives"; deleted song storyboard sequences; and "Barbra's 8mm Concept Film with Optional Narration." This is a veritable holiday for "Yentl" fans and especially Streisand fans. You know who you are, and you can be assured that this "Director's Extended Edition" of "Yentl" delivers and then some. (Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations” (Oxford) as well as “Second Act Trouble,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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