Friday, December 28, 2007

Broadway Documentaries: Feature Film Bonus Feature Bonanzas

Hairspray Shake and Shimmy Edition
As part of the 2-Disc DVD edition, we get a chance to explore the roots of the musical Hairspray, including the hit Broadway show. The original producers take part is explaining how the Broadway production came to be. Interestingly, lead producer Margo Lion talks about searching for a youth-friendly property, not necessarily a movie-based property, when she stumbled upon the film of Hairspray. She and the other producers do take us through their journey of workshops, with some additional insights from librettists Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. The only cast member to share experiences, though, is Marissa Jaret Winokur, who addresses not only her battle with cancer but also her tortured history with the show. She was the first Tracy the creators saw, and as she plugged on through the workshop process, she kept being forewarned that she would not be their final choice to open the show. Sadly, the doc contains no clips from the show, only still pictures, though there is a sampling of Nathan Lane singing as Wilbur Turnblad.

Honestly, it’s not a particularly insightful detailing of the creation of the Broadway show, but for someone who eats up that kind of information, I am still glad to have doled out the extra money for the 2-Disc edition just to have it.

Rent 2-Disc Special Edition
Okay, so I’m not really a Renthead. It’s not that I don’t greatly admire the late great Jonathon Larson’s work; it’s just one of those cases where the material, as a whole, doesn’t resonate with my experiences.

For me, though, the purchase of the 2-Disc edition of the movie was a must because of No Day But Today, the excellent doc on not only the making of the Broadway show but also on Jonathon Larson’s life, drawing on the remembrances of close friends as well as family members. As one who aspires to be produced on Broadway (and elsewhere), I found great inspiration in Larson’s life story, which is not only filled with a thriving in the joy of lack but also a love for life and art, the pain of learning the hard way, and the jubilation of triumph. I also found inspiration in the mechanics of Jonathon Larson’s success, the knowledge of what he had to do to get where he got.

After establishing many of the sources of inspiration for the events and characters of Rent, the documentary (which runs almost two hours) details the workshop and off-Broadway production of the show, including the process of casting and the pain of collaboration. It walks us through Jonathon Larson’s unexpected death as well as those days after in which the cast and creative team found a way to move on, as well as the show’s triumphant opening on Broadway. In fact, not even a full thirty minutes of the doc is dedicated to the film version. Best of all, the producers of No Day But Today call on original cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker to share their experiences in the process.

We’ve had a string of fantastic documentaries in recent years—Broadway: The Golden Age, Broadway: The American Musical, and Show Business: The Road to Broadway—and Rent’s No Day But Today belongs right up there with it.

The Phantom of the Opera
2-Disc Special Edition

Count me as one of those who really enjoyed the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a show I enjoyed on stage but was more blown away by the movie. I probably never would have bought the DVD, though, because I find it pretty much impossible to set aside the chunk of time needed to watch it all. However, I couldn’t pass it up when I heard about Behind the Mask: The Story of The Phantom of the Opera documentary on the 2-Disc edition.

If Behind the Mask is less interesting than No Day But Today it’s because The Phantom of the Opera is a less interesting show than Rent without the seasoning of the passion and struggles of a starving artist in the story of Jonathan Larson. Still, Behind the Mask is an interesting snapshot into the creative mind of one of the most successful and beloved theatrical composers of our time.

Running just over an hour, Behind the Mask follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show from the idea to the final production, peppered with many scenes from the stage show. As one might expect in such a thorough documentary, it covers the hiring on of key creative personnel, including interviews with them about their experiences. Hal Prince shows up for the documentary, as do lyricists Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart. Included in the story is the show’s premiere at Sydmonton, Webber’s country estate where he annually premieres shows and songs. At one early presentation of The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom was played by Colm Wilkinson, who appears here in footage from that 1985 performance (as does original Raoul Steve Barton in a later Sydmonton performance).

There’s the inclusion of the story of original lyricist Richard Stilgoe and “replacement” Charles Hart, with them discussing how they view their work today. Of interest is the inclusion of original Phantom Steve Harley (whose biggest regret in leaving the show was not being able to work with Hal Prince, whom he says changed his life).

The doc is loaded with clips from the stage production as well as the original music videos that were used to promote the show in London. We even get the scene from the stage show in which Christine’s voice gets replaced by a pre-recorded track, a switch which is identifiable only if you know about its use in advance. Choreographer Gillian Lynne also explains her choices in “Masquerade” which help cover up the use of dummies on the stage (which I had not known about until seeing this doc, and I’m not alone—according to Hal Prince, George Abbott didn’t figure it out either). We even get to see the dummies up close to see how they work. Also of interest is the inclusion of some photos of the process used in creating the look of the Phantom.

I guess if I despised The Phantom of the Opera (as some theatre folk do), I wouldn’t enjoy the documentary, and while there are no great revelations overall, not a whole lot that a creator myself can take away for future reference; it is still a pleasant and worthwhile story of the creation of the longest-running show on Broadway.

the Broadway Mouth
December 28, 2007

P.S. For info on the Bombay Dreams documentary and a musical-themed bonus feature on The Wedding Singer, click on "Broadway documentaries" below.


Esther said...

Thanks for the rundown. I'm a big fan of "Hairspray," so I did enjoy the documentary. I have the two-disc "Rent," and I've watched the movie, but not the documentary yet. I'm seeing the touring production next month. It'll be my first time seeing "Rent" on stage, and I'm psyched. I may wait until afterward to watch the documentary.

derekmichaelwest said...

There's a really good documentary called "Children Will Listen" about school students mounting INTO THE WOODS. It's narrated by Bernadette. I think you'd like it...

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

Thanks for the heads up, Derek. I'll have to check it out. I've recently been watching and re-watching EVERY LITTLE STEP but haven't gotten to writing about it at all.