Image has assembled six fat Stephen Sondheim DVDs into a package that will make a desirable holiday gift for anyone fond of quality stage music. Although all of the discs have been released previously (Savant's reviewed 3 of them) even Broadway buffs may not be aware of them. There's a mountain of entertaiment here.
Three of the programs are tapings of performances of the (I think) original casts in the shows as presented on Broadway. Savant harps often on the issue of recording plays like this, most recently in his review of Oklahoma! - having the stage experience of something as unforgettable as Into the Woods recorded is a fine thing.
The discs come from different sources and are not uniform in style or approach, so I've tried to give the reader an idea of what to expect, along with my personal reactions and comments.
Brandman, 1986; Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters
This is still the most challenging of the plays, and clearly the one hardest to stage. The giant scrims and lighting tricks used to bring the George Seurat painting to life must have been murder to make work for both the stage and the video. Far more ambitious than 'just another show', this is an intellectual piece done on an epic scale ... with more attention given to delicate moods than show-stopping entertainment. Earlier disc review by DVD Savant here.
Brandman, 1990; Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Tom Aldredge, Robert Westenberg
The obvious emotional favorite and the Sondheim play with the most to say to a general audience, Into the Woods is funny, touching and truly profound. A half-dozen fairy tales collide to produce the magic we all remember, and then in the second half Sondheim complicates their lives with problems from the real world. The stage production is delightful: there's no hyping the show with the unnecessary addition of a new character to play the cow, which remains a piece of plastic as it should. Reviewed by DVD Savant here.
The Passion Musical Company, 1995; Donna Murphy, Jere Shea, Marin Mazzie
Almost as demanding as Sunday in the Park, this is an examination of love from various angles of selfishness, need, desire and cruelty, a combination one doesn't expect anywhere this side of a Max Ophuls movie, let alone a 'light entertainment.' Once again Sondheim makes what might seem maudlin, inspired. A sickly madwoman entraps a handsome young man into her needs, yet she's not the villain. I read a lot of bad press for this; I thought it was great. Reviewed by DVD Savant here.
Chase Mishkin/EMK, 2001; Patti LuPone, George Hearn, Davis Gaines, Victoria Clark, Timothy Nolen, John Aler, Lisa Vroman, Neil Patrick Harris, Stanford Olsen
This show was something of a sticking point - as with the three titles above, a magnificent video version broadcast of the whole play was released on VHS and laser disc. But it hasn't made it to DVD, so I have to presume that there's some rights snag involved. The idea of just seeing the cast sing the songs on stage didn't sound very appealing, but this lavish presentation is a minimalist reworking of the play with a few props and costumes. It cleverly uses a set of walkways in and around the orchestra (which is on stage, facing us) to give us the outlines of the story. It's not a substitute for the stage experience (we don't see the sparse dockside set or really know where we are most of the time) but the music and singing quality is superb. Angela Lansbury was probably better but Patti LuPone is fine, and George Hearn just looks a bit heavier. The lyrics are clear, but I still miss the frill of optional subtitles to follow them - I'm not quite the sort that pulls out reference books and reads along with Sondheim's words, at least not yet.
EMK, 1985; Licia Albanese, Carol Burnett, Liz Callaway, Betty Comden, Barbara Cook, Adolph Green, Andre Gregory, George Hearn, Phyllis Newman, Mandy Patinkin, Daisy Prince, Lee Remick, Elaine Stritch
The oldest video in the set, this is a regrouping fourteen years later to do a concert version of the show, with a cast that includes some star ringers as well as Broadway vets. Shot on film and doing without the digital flexibility of newer shows, it has some rough edges. Of the six discs, this is the only one that put me at a disadvantage, mainly because it presumes that we are already familiar with the show. All the details of the lengthy rehearsal footage were lost on me due to overall ignorance. Sondheim shows are so much more than their songs, that some even seem dull here (I know, I know, heresy) but I have to assume it's a factor of the presentation. After watching this one disc, I still can't tell you anything but generalities about Follies.
Carnegie Hall, 1992; Madeleine Kahn, Liza Minnelli, Billy Stritch, The Tonics, Dorothy Loudon, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Bill Irwin, Karen Ziémba, Victor Garber, Daisy Eagan, Bernadette Peters, Harolyn Blackwell, Maureen Moore, Glenn Close
Getting a big cast of stars together for a compendium of a composer/lyricist's biggest hits sounds like an invitation to trouble, or the plot of a bad MGM musical (Words and Music). Swanky presentation makes this show an exception. Excellent direction and camerawork give us an improved version of the Carnegie Hall experience, and the selection of songs and singers is wide and refreshing. They even throw in Sondheim's songs from the Dick Tracy movie. The stars sublimate their egos to the job at hand, taking equal status with the great stage singers and choirs that back them up. Best of all, the show isn't clogged up with backstage footage or undue attempts to tell us how incredible it all is; it just happens, with barely a break for applause between numbers. This was the surprise disc of the package.
Dealmaking in Hollywood is such a rat's nest, that I can't imagine the difficulties that must be involved in getting a video show like one of these made. The discs can be popular but probably won't be a theatrical-scale gold mine, so the long lines of small type on the packaging attest to the squirrely arrangements that had to be made. Every bit of copy tells a story, for instance the rather large acknowledgement for the poster on the back of Follies.
I once had my credit yanked off a poster because someone saw that it wasn't mandated in my contract, so I know how it feels. And we all know that a stage play that moves around and later is filmed or taped must collect producers and presenters like a snowball going down a hill. So I'm grateful that these discs are available at all, and understand the no-show for the full-play version of Sweeney Todd. Maybe it will come out eventually.
The Sondheim boxed set is a pricey package, but it delivers a lot of entertainment. Into the Woods I'd classify as a must-see and most of the rest were shows that held me too fascinated to look away (Sunday in the Park) or lured people from other parts of the house in curiosity (Sweeney, Carnegie). And in this house, people ask what grotesque thing I'm watching before they come in.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,