Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This colorful PBS show from 1997 celebrates Leonard Bernstein's three New York musicals, On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story. It's half a documentary and half a performance piece, and a solid effort.
The show begins with its best material, rehearsals for the master recordings. The fine selection of singer-actors is fascinating to watch when trying out a song in an apartment or performing it 'for real' in front of a studio microphone. Mandy Patinkin dominates group scenes by virtue of his expansive personality but the really great voices belong to the other performers, all Broadway stars: Dawn Upshaw, Judy Blazer, Audra McDonald, Richard Muenz and a specially billed Donna Murphy.
Director Hart Perry makes his show serve several functions. The main draw is to hear the Bernstein songs, which are chosen not from a best-of perspective, but to illustrate the theme of hopefuls in the big city. In On the Town returning soldiers look forward to a better and more exciting life, along with newly-emancipated women no longer afraid to express desires of their own. Wonderful Town is a musicalization of the Rosalind Russell film My Sister Eileen, and it concerns the hopes of talented youngsters coming to Greenwich Village to make a start. 1 By extension West Side Story is simply a plea for peace and calm by two lovers across embattled gang lines in the late 1950s.
The selection of tunes is refreshingly atypical; many seem to be chosen simply because they aren't often recorded.
On the Town:
New York, New York ensemble
Ya Got Me Murphy, Blazer, Patinkin
Come Up to My Place Patinkin, Blazer
Lonely Town Upshaw
Some Other Time Patinkin
Ain't Got No Tears Left Murphy
What a Waste Muenz, Upshaw, Murphy
A Quiet Girl Muenz
Wrong Note Rag Patinkin
Story of My Life Blazer
A Little Bit in Love McDonald
West Side Story:
One Hand, One Heart Upshaw, Muenz
Tonight McDonald, Patinkin
Most of the songs are not allowed to play uninterrupted. Part of the biographical story of Leonard Bernstein is told over stills and news film clips of the city, but other explanations and comments edge over the songs themselves, an unwelcome touch. We hear the singers, music critics and other New York journalists, and a couple of Bernstein biographers explaining the social context for the three shows and Bernstein's move from writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim ... all relevant information but too thin to comprise a comprehensive Bernstein bio. Some of the best comments come from the singers: Dawn Upshaw makes good sense when she opines that the One Hand, One Heart song from West Side Story is often spoiled by too much sentimentality when performed. She sings it straight.
Also something of a distraction is the director's determination to make his show into an On The Town- like moving music video. Most of the songs are presented as little filmed stories with the singers lip-synching the lyrics on the streets of the city. When the concept is strong, as with Come Up to My Place the conceit works well enough, but too many songs simply have the singers drifting on real sidewalks mouthing the words, while we take note of normal city dwellers staring at the camera. Director Perry also goes for weak drama, like having one of the women agonizing in a muddy junkyard wearing a formal gown, with the New York skyline behind her. The lack of full production values -- lighting, camera movement, etc -- also keeps the material from making a major impact. The fact is that lip-synching is a poor substitute for seeing the actor-singers actually performing, even if it's in the confines of a recording studio with wires and microphones in the shot. The one compensation is that Leonard Bernstein's New York is not an 'in concert' performing piece, where every song ends with enormous waves of applause. 2
Clocking in at one hour, Leonard Bernstein's New York makes for a satisfactory show, especially for Bernstein fans eager to hear new interpretations of some of his less-revived songs. Conducting and playing the piano is Eric Stern, who sums up the 1940s and 50s as an entirely different time, musically speaking. American culture no longer leads with works on the Broadway stage and wonderful songs like these just aren't being written any more. Yet they're not pieces of nostalgia, as they really haven't aged.
Kultur's DVD of Leonard Bernstein's New York looks fine and sounds good in a two-channel stereo mix. The flat image is colorful and stable and few if any video flaws come through. There are no extras, but Humphrey Burton does provide a Bernstein timeline bio on the printed insert.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Leonard Bernstein's New York rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2006
1. The confusing factor in this is that My Sister Eileen was later made into a separate film musical separate from Bernstein's work, with songs and lyrics by George Duning and Jule Styne.
2. The career of director Perry, a former cinematographer (Harlan County USA) is split between music video-style work and activist documentaries.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson