Magic Shows and Miracles

I love a great movie musical, but my true love has always been the stage musical. And luckily, quite a few stage musicals have been captured on video. And no, seeing these shows on video is not the same as seeing therm live, but it is the next best thing. And if it's the only way you can see them...

I have a lot of musicals on video that I recorded off television, Ain't Misbehavin', Purlie, Show Boat, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and others; and I have a lot of bootlegs (shhhh! don't tell anyone!), but you have to find a good bootlegger to get hold of many of those. Luckily for musical lovers, more and more musicals are being released on DVD now. Some of the older shows that had been staged for TV are terrible (I'm looking at you, Bloomer Girl and A Connecticut Yankee), but some of them are really great.

So here's a list of cool stage performances captured on video, and commercially available, that I very much recommend. (Each title links to the DVD on Amazon.) Originally, I intended to make this another Top Ten list, but I know I won't be able to keep it to ten...

Rent -- We were all disappointed by the movie version of Rent, but luckily they filmed the final performance on Broadway. Not only is it an outstanding performance, but there are lots of close-ups, and it's cut like a rock video, so the editing totally matches the show's energy. I really love this video. I saw the original cast back in the 1990s shortly after the show moved to Broadway, but this is almost that wonderful.

Taboo -- I love this show. I mean, I love it. And if Rosie O'Donnell wasn't such a psycho bitch, maybe the production rights would be available. But she is and they're not. Luckily, someone has released the London production (before the New York rewrites) on commercial DVD. If you're a big Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, you'll hate this show. I mean, you'll hate it. But if you're as excited as I am about where the art form is heading, I think you'll love Taboo. It's a very honest, very well crafted, dramatic musical. The musical vocabulary is definitely Boy George pop, but it's good pop, it's utterly fearless theatre, and it's also serious, emotional adult storytelling.

Company -- There is a bootleg video floating around out there of the 1993 Company reunion concert with the entire original cast (minus "Larry" who had died), and it's truly amazing to get a taste of that history-making, rule-shattering musical, as close to the original production as we'll ever get. As part of that concert, they also did the birthday party scenes, and also all of Micheal Bennett's original choreography -- which is brilliant. Unfortunately, that video is not available commercially. (Yes, I am a tease.) But there is one commercial video that is arguably just as good. I'm talking about the 2011 "concert staging" starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, Jon Cryer, Craig Bierko, et al. (This is not that godawful 2006 production where the actors play their own musical instruments. Someone please lock John Doyle up for a while.) This 2011 production is technically just a concert, but it's so much more than that. They have minimalist furniture and they do all the dialogue scenes -- in some ways, it's almost exactly what the original Broadway production looked like. This concert staging could have moved to Broadway as easily as the Chicago revival did. And it would have been better. The style here is exactly right, they get the wry humor, they get the subtlety, they get the edge of it. And every actor is dream-casting for that character. Company has always been one of my all-time favorite shows. Almost everything I do today is built on the shoulders of Sondheim and Prince. If you've never seen Company, this is it.

Passing Strange -- This is one of the most brilliant, most original, most thrilling pieces of theatre to hit Broadway in a decade. And we're very lucky that Spike Lee fell in love with it and decided to film it before it closed. So now we have a really great record of this masterpiece of modern musical theatre. It's everything I love, it very much points the way toward the future of the art form, the score is utterly amazing, and every artist will find a great deal of resonance in this story. It was one of the great thrills of my life to work on this show with New Line last fall. If you only watch one of the shows on this list, make it Passing Strange.

The Pirates of Penzance -- Once again, the movie version of The Pirates of Penzance was such a huge disappointment. I had ssen the original 1981 cast on Broadway -- my first Broadway show ever -- and the movie sucked every drop of joy, rowdiness, and anarchy out of it. But now, the stage production is on DVD, filmed when it was still at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park before moving to Broadway. If you've never seen -- or never liked -- Gilbert and Sullivan, give this one a try. It's absolutely pitch-perfect, exactly what G&S should be for a modern audience. And it literally changed the way I think about musical theatre. The rowdiness of it, the chaos of it, the sexuality, the physical humor, the genuine honesty and outrageous style all rolled up together. I think it's the most fun I'd ever had in a theatre up to that point. It opened up this whole new world of what a musical could be. So much of how I stage a musical comedy I learned in that one night on Broadway in spring 1981.

Pippin -- I first saw Pippin on Showtime, also in 1981, and fell madly in love with it. Now, all these years later, knowing so much more about the original production of Pippin, this version disappoints me a little bit. This was a Canadian reproduction of the original, with some of the original cast, restaged by Bob Fosse's dance captain Kathryn Doby. Without Fosse at the helm, Ben Vereen goes a bit too over-the-top, but this is pretty damn close to what the original was like. Personally, I hate the rewrites that Stephen Schwartz has done to the show recently, so it's good that the show was preserved in this video, more or less in its original form (though missing a couple songs). It's a remarkable piece of theatre created by a genuine genius at the height of his powers. And Stephen Schwartz's score is much stronger than the critics originally gave it credit for. If you haven't seen it, give it a shot.

Sweeney Todd -- Again, this was my first encounter with Sweeney Todd and it thrilled me. Since then, I've seen a bootleg video of the original production and I do prefer Len Cariou to George Hearn in the title role, but Hearn is still excellent if a little less subtle. But this is a solid production, with some of the original cast, including Angela Lansbury. As I understand it, this was the end of the national tour, in L.A. I wish some of the replacement cast were better actors, but it's an amazing show, so even in a B+ production, it's really powerful. And now that it's on DVD, they've solved a lot of the sound problems.

Kiss Me, Kate -- I never really liked Kiss Me, Kate. It always seemed so old-fashioned and bland. Then I saw the revival with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, which was really outstanding, and I softened a bit. Then I saw the 1958 TV production, just recently released on DVD, with the two original Broadway leads, Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison. And it completely changed my opinion about the show. This is a dark, nasty, brutal, very funny, but decidedly adult take on the show. Is this what the original production was like? Probably so. And it's a lot more interesting, a lot more fun, and a lot more cynical than any other Kate I've seen. So call me a convert.

Alice at the Palace - I stumbled upon this DVD on Netflix and was naturally curious -- a musical I had never heard of...???  This is a very different, more adult take on the classic story, using lots of stage devices borrowed (as many shows at the time were doing) from the experimental theatre movement, with Meryl Streep as Alice, and a great ensemble cast including Debbie Allen, Michael Jeter, and Mark Linn-Baker, and a score by Elizabeth Swados. It's not brilliant by any means, but it's really interesting and really fun. And if you're as big a musical theatre freak like me, you know you wanna see it now...

Barnum -- I saw the original production of this show on the same New York trip in 1981 that I saw Pirates for the first time. And it thrilled me almost as much. Once again, here's an incredibly original, emotional, smart piece of theatre, with a great score by Cy Coleman and the brilliant Michael Stewart, and a solid book by Mark Bramble, telling the life story of PT Barnum in the language of the circus. Don't worry -- it's not at all cute. I wish the original cast (Jim Dale, Glenn Close) had been preserved rather than this London production with Michael Crawford. But it's still a great way to see this amazing, original show.

Tintypes -- I first saw this show on cable in 1981, around the same time I first saw Pirates of Penzance and Pippin. It's a gentle little show, not really the kind of show you'd guess that I would like. But I really love it. It's a cast of just five actors (including future director Jerry Zaks), on a mostly bare stage, singing songs from the early decades of the 20th century, like "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "In My Merry Oldsmobile," "Hello Ma Baby," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and others. In a way, the show is a character study of America in that moment, the immigrant experience, "melting pot" assimilation, the first World War. On one level, it's a revue, but like all the best revues, it's also much more. As simple and old-fashioned as it seems at first, it's a powerful portrait of our country at that moment, and the cast is flawless, both in singing and in acting. This is a fascinating, original, insightful piece of theatre, and once again, we're really lucky it's been preserved on video. I re-watch this show every couple years because it's a terrific lesson in saying a lot without saying a lot. So much of the dramatic content is subtextual, and that raises it up above most other revues.

Poe -- This one may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I LOVE IT. It's a very minimally staged pop/rock song cycle chronicling the life and career of Edgar Allen Poe, truly one of the most original shows I've seen in a long time. I first watched this earlier this year and absolutely fell in love with it. The music and lyrics are by the late Eric Woolfson, one of the creative forces behind the Alan Parsons Project, and this production was staged in London's famed Abbey Road Studio.

The Sondheim Musicals -- I'll group these all together -- Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Passion. It's so wonderful that several of the greatest works of one of the art form's greatest geniuses have been preserved for us. We're just lucky that technology advanced just enough, just in time, to capture his greatest works. I'll always wish they had captured the original casts of Company and Follies, but it's hard to complain when we have the shows we do have. I fully believe that we are in a new Golden Age of Musical Theatre, and I'm pretty eager to discard Rodgers & Hammerstein at this point, but there's no denying that none of the amazing things happening in our art form today would be happening without the work of Sondheim (and Prince and Lapine). We stand on the shoulders of giants.

And in the interest of equal time, I should at least mention the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows that are on video -- in very good productions -- Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Now they just need to start releasing all those hundreds of musicals they have in the Theatre on Film and Tape Collection at the New York Public Library. But until they do, you can always stop in there when you're in New York and watch some incredibly cool stuff...

So there's my list. If there are any here you haven't seen, give 'em a try. Every one of these videos has something to recommend it, and it's a great way to get a better glimpse into the history of our art form. Like I said, I hated Kiss Me, Kate until I saw the original leads and I realized the show itself was never the problem -- the productions of the show were. (I had the same experience with Show Boat.) Even for those of us who do this for a living, it's often hard to tell that the material's good when the production is bad. Just look at the reception High Fidelity and Cry-Baby got in New York -- we know now (thanks to New Line) that both shows are exceptionally well crafted but were distorted and ruined by clueless New York directors and designers. Now both shows are getting their due in regional theatres across the country -- again, thanks to New Line.

We're happy to help.

On a related topic, New Line's YouTube channel has collected more than 250 videos chronicling the entire history of the American musical theatre, from a historical recreation of the 1904 Little Johnny Jones right up to today's new works, including hundreds of original performances and original choreography. It's so cool that today's technology allows us to do this. So stop by. I think you'll have a blast watching this stuff and the other cool videos we've collected.

And if you're looking for even more musical theatre to fill up the dark, cold winter ahead, take a look at my lists of cool movie musicals, cool stage musicals, and cool musical theatre books. That'll keep you busy for a while...

Long Live the Musical!