Broadway Musicals on tv dvd--mini reviews

Ethan Riley

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The remaking of classic movie or Broadway musicals for television has become almost an annual event. In all cases, they have made for a fine evening of tv entertainment and a welcome respite from all the severed limbs on the "CSI" type shows, or the bawling, battling, brainless she-dogs on the "Bachelor." However, as movies, they each stand (or fall) on their own merits and pitfalls. Some of these movies surpass their Hollywood originals on levels of substance and stardom. Others fail miserably and suffer from cheap budgets, lousy casting, and lack of purpose. Here's some mini reviews of the ones available on dvd. I've left out recent tv musicals that were original for the small screen such as "Gepetto" and "Mrs. Santa Claus," although the rest of you can review and discuss them in this thread if ya wanna. I'll try to compare each tv musical to its (usually more famous) movie original.

Annie (1999) In many ways, this little film is more successful than the 1982 original. In the former, a little family-friendly musical--likeable, and fun and easy for community theatre groups to do--was bloated to big screen proportions, blaring across the speakers to 100 times its original intent. The tv version keeps things under control, and concentrates on story rather than noise and spectacle. Fans of the original might look at this and come away with a "so what" p.o.v., but fans of the play itself might think, "yeah that's it--they got it." Kathy Bates is best here as Miss Hannigan, while not as fun as Carol Burnett's rendition, she still carries the show. The rest of the cast is adequate and do the job. While not the liveliest movie ever made, people who have only seen this version probably come away with a better understanding and appreciation of what "Annie" is really trying to be.

Bye Bye Birdie (1995) This movie was panned for dullness in its day. It is only dull in the sense that some of the staging of the larger musical numbers is very mediocre. While in the 60s version you had dozens of extras jumping all over town, a fast-motion comic Russian ballet sequence and teens dancing the night away in a roadhouse, in the new version all you get is a few extras hopping about a little. However, what the show loses in scope, it makes up in character motivation and focus. Vanessa Williams is clearly the highlight of this movie and is given a long leash in the use of her many talents. She easily proves why she's a star, with eyes flashing and forceful during her "Spanish Rose" number, which had been left out of the original movie. Jason Alexander is fun as the bumbling Albert, Tyne Daly a bit less so as his long-suffering Mama. Chynna Phillips is odd as teenager Kim, never quite believing in the youth and naivety of her character--in contrast to sexpot Ann-Margret, who, mature and sultry as she looked in the original, still managed to convince us that Kim is a nitwit. Overall, the movie is far closer to the stage play; it just needs better choreography!

Cinderella (1997) Cinderella was not a Broadway musical, but it boasts music by Rogers and Hammerstein and has been presented on television several times over the past 50 years. This is perhaps the oddest of all the versions. In the late 90s, there was a big flap over the lack of actors of color on television. So, the producers of this movie chose to ignore race completely, choosing peoples of all many ethnic backgrounds for the principal parts and casting Cinderella as a color-blind kingdom. A noble attempt, but it lead to countless distractions during the narrative, such as leaving the audience wondering how a black queen and a white king would have an Asian son. Brandy is fine in the title role--all the principals are very good at what they do in this all-star production which included Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston and Bernadette Peters. But it is one strange looking film, no matter its intent.

Gypsy (1993) --The first and probably the best of all the tv musical remakes. While Tyne Daly had become rather well-known at the time for taking over the part of Mama Rose on the stage, the producers chose a better known ham--Bette Midler--for the role in this version. Bette does what Bette does--she soars in this version, convincingly portraying the ultimate Stage Mother from Hell to greater heights--or greater depths as the familiar story unfolds. She manages the correct balance of humor and angst to create a truly memorable character. The 1962 version with Rosalind Russell in the lead lacked purpose and had fans wondering why Ethel Merman wasn't in the film. Bette is pretty much the Merman of her day.

The Music Man (2003) In most cases, the tv musicals were remakes of films that deserved to be remade. The originals sometimes had bad casting, or strayed too far from the Broadway originals. Not so in the case of the original Music Man, 1962, which not only managed to retain its original Harold Hill in Robert Preston, but continues to be considered an untouchable classic to this day. So...why tamper with a classic? Because Matthew Broderick needed the money, I guess. Pardon my French, but, he SUCKS as Harold Hill. He takes a high-energy, bombastic Broadway comedy and grinds it into the ground of misplaced pathos and schmaltz. Why insipid, overrated little Broderick thought he could come close to the energy of the Great Robert Preston is one of those Hollywood mysteries that shall never be solved. Here would be the difference in the energy levels between the two performers. Preston: "WELLL, ya got TROUBLE, my friends!! I said TROUBLE right here in River City!!! Broderick: "Well...you've got...trouble. my friends. I said...trouble...right here. In...River City..." It's night and day. The new movie takes one of the loudest and funniest of all Broadway plays and decides to "update" it with a greater concentration on the pathos of little fatherless Winthrop. In the former, the fact that his father had died was a largely unexamined bit intended to ground the story into at least a semblance of reality in an otherwise lively farce. The new version plays it like a bad episode of "7th Heaven," with all the tears and audience manipulation it can get away with. And the singing, the dancing, and especially Broderick utterly suck. This is one mediocre movie--there is not an ounce of theatrical liveliness or cinematic ingenuity to be seen.

Once Upon A Mattress (2005) A fairly good version of another musical that had been taped for television a few times before. In the former, Carol Burnett had played the winsome princess Winifred with fine humor and now has graduated on to the mean ol' queen part. Tracey Ullman, although a little long in the tooth, is fine as the new Winifred. The sets are a little claustrophic and it looks like it was made on the cheap, but it is a fine evening's entertainment, and that's all it aspires to be.

South Pacific (2001) A mediocre remake of a really strange film to begin with. Glenn Close is old enough to be Nellie's mother, not Nellie! Harry Connick Jr. as the doomed Lt. Cable is the best thing in the movie. Everyone else is just a bunch of hack Canadian actors who couldn't get a job in community theatre in the States. 'Nuff said!
 

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