Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Video Bundles From Britain

News   Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Video Bundles From Britain


As one who considers Martin Guerre a satisfying contemporary opera, I enjoyed catching up with The Making of "Martin Guerre": A Musical Journey, a documentary released on video by VCI, the British company that has already issued on tape such musicals as Heathcliff, Five Guys Named Moe, and Buddy .

Guerre was perhaps too somber to approach the success of the two previous Cameron Mackintosh/Claude-Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil operas Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Then too, its central characters are to an extent pawns in the religious wars of 16th century France, and religious conflicts are perhaps not as compelling to today's audiences as other sorts of problems. But Guerre's strengths -- above all a score of genuine operatic feel and grandeur -- were underappreciated and, even with a Best Musical Olivier Award and a run of close to two years, the show was a sizable financial loser.

Watching this celebratory special while aware of the fate of the production makes for a certain amount of irony, but it's a valuable document, as it features a tremendous amount of footage of a production that will never be seen again; while Guerre is about to get another chance in a U.K. tour, it will be with a completely new design and staging. Featured in the video footage is the original London company (including Juliette Caton, the leading lady dropped from the cast recordng in favor of her stronger-voiced alternate Rebecca Lock).

The 70-minute documentary is built around the show's first full company rehearsal with orchestra, cutting away from that event to interviews (Mackintosh, Boublil, Schonberg, lyricists Edward Hardy and Stephen Clark, director Declan Donnelan, designer Nick Ormerod, choreographer Bob Avian, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) and show clips. Given Mackintosh's recent proclivity for resuscitating and promoting new productions of shows that other producers might have let go (The Fix, Just So, Putting It Together), along with the fact that the new version of Guerre will feature yet another revision of the text, I suspect that America will see eventually see a production of the show somewhere; if that's not likely to be on Broadway, surely a regional musical house with sizable resources such as Paper Mill Playhouse would consider mounting it. If it is probably never to achieve the kind of mass international success of the team's first two collaborations, Guerre is likely to keep on returning here and there: While most such documentaries are made to promote the arrival of a show, this one was clearly fashioned with an eye toward promoting future lives.


Also from VCI is a video of a production that, like Heathcliff, toured arenas in England and stopped at Labatt's Apollo in Hammersmith, London (where current tenant Doctor Dolittle, is playing a sit-down run). Starring young pop idol Darren Day, whose stage work includes Joseph...., Great Expectations, and Copacabana, Summer Holiday was a stage version of a famous (in England) Cliff Richard rock-and-roll movie. The 75-minute video, shot at the Bristol Hipprodome, features just musical numbers (with some connective material), and functions as a visual cast album (not a bad idea for future consideration). The whole thing is big and fairly idiotic, but it's obviously a huge nostalgia trip for the audience, which laps it up. One of those "only in England" experiences.


Andrew Lloyd Webber's 50th birthday was celebrated with an extremely elaborate London gala, featuring performers from his shows along with pop stars, and excerpts from all of his musicals except Jeeves/By Jeeves and the song portion of Song and Dance (cellist brother Julian Lloyd Webber plays a couple of the "Variations" that became the score for the dance half). On an enormous, winding-ribbon stage, huge, costumed singing and dancing ensembles surround the soloists, with Lloyd Webber specialist Michael Reed leading the large orchestra.

If the concert may not make converts of Lloyd Webber-loathers, it's a good show. Single-handedly justifying the whole shebang is Glenn Close, defining star quality in to-die-for renditions of the two big Sunset Boulevard arias she sang in Los Angeles and New York (but never before in England). Sporting Norma Desmond's entrance costume and softer, subtler make-up than she wore when she played the part, Close looks wonderful (please let her play Phyllis if the proposed Roundabout revival of Follies happens). Another great Norma, Elaine Paige, is her usual silvery, flawless self in her trademark "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" and "Memory."

Michael Ball sounds wonderful in selections ranging from his own "Love Changes Everything" to "Gethsemane" and the Whistle Down The Wind opening chorale "The Vaults of Heaven" (which features a piece of melody that sounds just like the theme from Jurassic Park). The composer's latest musical is also represented by its lovely title song (Tina Arena opens the show with it, while Lottie Mayor, leading lady of the current West End production, gets the final spot reprising it); "No Matter What" performed by a quintet of young men known as Boyzone; and Bonnie Tyler --who had a hit with Jim Steinman's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which has been recycled in Steinman's Vienna pop opera Tanz der Vampire-- singing a new Steinman lyric with "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts" (couldn't Lloyd Webber have written a new tune for it, instead of reusing that of "English Girls" from Song and Dance?).

Antonio Banderas repeats two of his Evita numbers, then demonstrates with the title number from The Phantom of the Opera that he should be just fine as the star of the forthcoming movie version. He performs the number opposite original Christine Sarah Brightman, who also does "All I Ask of You" with Ball, "Pie Jesu," and "The Music of the Night."

Donny Osmond does two of the Joseph.... songs that preoccupied him for much of the '90s. Whistle leading man Marcus Lovett leads a strong "Superstar" (in addition to setting up Close's numbers with some of Joe Gillis' dialogue). And the big rarity here --at least for now-- is Kiri Te Kanawa singing "The Heart Is Slow To Learn," a ravishing, Viennese operetta-type number (lyric by Don Black) from the proposed Phantom sequel.

The Royal Albert Hall gala will be aired here on PBS this December. The British video release includes the complete, 127-minute concert, 30 minutes of which were not aired on the telecast in that country. No doubt PBS will follow suit and show an abbreviated version, offering the full video as a pledge lure.

CATS (Polygram)

The Lloyd Webber gala video begins with a promo for the video version of Cats, which will be released in this country in October, and aired by PBS in November. While I haven't seen the whole thing, I have watched the 27-minute tape of excerpts that Polygram has sent around, featuring the back- to-back numbers "Macavity," "Mr. Mistoffolees," "Memory," and "The Journey to the Heaviside Layer."

One wonders, of course, whether the box office of the show in New York and London will be affected by having the show released on video and televised while it is still playing. True, a TV version of The Fantasticks aired in 1964, but it was an hour long and not the off-Broadway production. CBS telecast a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Much Ado About Nothing during its Broadway run, but it was taped on studio sets. The Cats video was shot directly off the stage, full sets and all (but done at London's Adelphi Theatre, rather than the show's West End home since 1981, the New London).

On the evidence of the numbers here, the video is not only handsome looking, but may not supplant the stage experience so much that audiences will evaporate. It's shot on film, which is a different look from videotape. And filled as it is with edits, cuts, close-ups, and shots from above, below, and the sides, it's a different experience from watching the show head-on. In any case, this video is an interesting experiment, and no one involved has much to lose, as Cats has already had a fairly good run. Elaine Paige is, of course, a stand-out recreating Grizabella, a role she hasn't played since 1982.

Note that the commercially released videos discussed above are at this time available only on the PAL video system; the Lloyd Webber salute and Cats will, of course, soon be available on the NTSC (U.S.) video system. As no American production of Martin Guerre is on the immediate horizon, it's possible that that tape will not be released or shown in the U.S. As for Summer Holiday, don't look for it on PBS.

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