Sunday, December 8, 2013

Broadway ... on Television

There was a time - within my lifetime - that LIVE was synonymous with TELEVISION. Names such as Playhouse 90, Studio OneOmnibus, and others bring back images of live drama in the early days of television. Soap operas, the staple of daytime TV, were performed live well after all the others went to film or tape.

Actors found ways to adapt and although you might have found chaos on the set, what came through the tv was some of the finest material ever presented on TV. It didn't have the polish or production quality that today's shows have, but the content was remarkable. This was the incubator for some of the finest playwrights of the day ... including Rod Serling who gained fame for his Requiem for a Heavyweight, and went on to create The Twilight Zone.

Among the source material for these shows, was often dramas which had been successful on Broadway. However, the Broadway musical was a challenge that was very rarely attempted, and when it was, it needed to be a big network special.

When I was growing up, there were two musicals that everyone waited anxiously for their yearly broadcast. The first was the now classic MGM musical, The Wizard of Oz. The other was taken from the Broadway stage and featured Mary Martin as Peter Pan.

The first few years it was broadcast, it was done so live, with Mary Martin reprising the role she created on Broadway. In its later years, the show was committed to video tape, but for us watching it, that made no difference at all. The once a year NBC special broadcast was an event. I know I looked forward to it with just as much excitement and anticipation as I did for the Thanksgiving night broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. However, while the Wizard of Oz was a huge Hollywood spectacular, Peter Pan had the intimacy of the Broadway stage.

In 1960 it had been taped in a longer TV version from the earlier live ones - at the Brooklyn studio that was just around the corner from where I lived. Mary Martin, once again playing the boy who wouldn't grow up, was now appearing on Broadway, as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Then it was gone. The Wizard of Oz continued but Peter Pan disappeared from our small screen It made its final TV appearance in 1999, but that was the first time it had been on TV since 1973! (The show was revived twice on Broadway - once with Sandy Duncan and once with Cathy Rigby whom I saw in it in 1990.)

Saturday Night Live - which also broadcast a few episodes in 1976 from the Brooklyn studio (and if you buy the DVD set of the second season, you can see my wife and myself in the audience) - became the only live show on TV.

Broadway musicals performed live on tv became just a memory ... until a few nights ago. NBC once again attempted to present a musical performed live. Ironically the choice of musical was The Sound of Music! However, rather than casting someone who had played the part on Broadway, for the leads, the producers went with names from the current celebrity pool and surrounded them with a few Broadway veterans, such as Audra McDonald whose Broadway prowess is legendary.

For the role of Maria - they cast Carrie Underwood, a country singer who gained recognition as a winner on American Idol. She had no background in acting and her style of singing was not what was needed for this show.

Carrie Underwood's acting was very poor - I won't say amateurish as I have seen some wonderful amateur actors in the more than 40 years I have worked with community theater - and there were some technical flaws with the broadcast. I would have expected better from a national network broadcast special.

However ... having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed the show ... and have now watched it twice. 

Rather than bash Carrie Underwood - as so many did, both on social media as well as traditional reviews, I give her full credit for attempting something so far out of her comfort zone. She needed to not only act, but change her style of singing drastically. I think she accomplished the singing part very successfully. (I was not a Carrie Underwood fan going in - but I respect her now, at least for the courage she showed and the work she put in!) In fact, I would say that her best acting was done while she was singing. Perhaps if she were given more time and extensive coaching in her acting, I believe she could have pulled it off much better. I hope she gets the opportunity again after some work in that area. Bottom line for me was that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

Yes, I could pick it apart with the best of them, but isn't it all about enjoying a performance? Well, I did. I hope this is the first in a long line of Broadway musicals brought to TV. There is still a lot they need to learn, but I hope they learn from their problems and continue to present live musical theater to the TV viewing public.

Update: Since writing this, a lot of people have complained about the broadcast - mostly comparing it to the movie rather than the Broadway show, which came first, starring Mary Martin as mentioned above. (The show opened in 1959 - the movie premiered in 1965! The movie would never have been made if the show had not been a huge hit.) Many complained how musical numbers were not in the "proper" order. They seem unaware - or have forgotten - that this is the Broadway book and it was the movie which switched the musical numbers. I have heard more than one person say that no one could step in to the shoes of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I agree, but those weren't the shoes they were trying to step in to. If anybody's shoes were being stepped in to it was those of Maria and Georg Von Trapp!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Makin' Memories

Yesterday, I created this video for a group in which I participate. Each day we share a song - occasionally with a theme. The theme was "A Memory" and I immediately thought of this song - many of you will recognize it as part of a long gone pre-show at the Kodak sponsored Imagination attraction at EPCOT in Walt Disney World. I couldn't find it on You Tube or Vimeo, so I made my own.

I thought some of you might enjoy it ...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

There's No Place Like Oz!

It was Thanksgiving and the family - filled with turkey and all of the fixin's - was sitting in front of the small black and white TV about to continue an annual ritual ... watching the once a year broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. There was no home video so this was the only chance to see it during the year, and we looked forward to it from the moment it ended the year before. This was a truly magic movie, even in black and white and with commercials, and the whole family - as many as four generations - would sit and watch it.

Over the years, my love of this movie would propel me into learning as much about it as possible, and I studied everything I could find that was written about it. I read many of L. Frank Baum's earliest Oz stories. I have even ridden through Munchkinland (in the Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World). I would purchase an 8mm film version of highlights, then a VHS copy, followed by a DVD copy and my last purchase was a restored version (with lots of extras) on Blue-Ray.

We bought our first color TV too late in 1969 to watch it that year in color, so the first time I ever saw it in color (and without commercial interruption) was when it was shown in my college one weekend. (Remember that this was the early 70's and we were all college students, so the "atmosphere" was one which made the viewing ... errr ... how should I put this ... enhanced?) We saw the sepia toned beginning and end ... and the color ... when Dorothy opened the door and saw Oz (with us) for the first time was truly an experience different from watching it on a small black and white television set.

Years later, when I read to my son and daughter at bedtime, it would be from the Oz stories. We got through many of the earliest books before bedtime stories ended.

Five years ago, for the 70th anniversary of the movie, it was shown for one showing only - in IMAX. Naturally my wife and I had to go see it. It was an Event (capital "E")! There were many Dorothy's (with or without Toto) as well as Wicked Witches, and a few Scarecrows, Tinmen and Lions (well, maybe one Lion) and a scattering of Munchkins. When the movie came on it was amazing at that size! You could see things that you never would even have imagined on that small black and white TV.

This week - and for this week only - they have gone one better ... it is showing in IMAX 3D! My wife and I went yesterday to see it. Since it is showing for a full week with a complete daily schedule during the week, it didn't have the Event status that the earlier one did five years ago, but my wife and I found ourselves good seats in the exact center of the theater and couldn't wait.

Right from the moment Leo (the MGM lion) appeared on screen, I knew we were in for a treat. I find it somewhat sobering that the movie starts with these words ...

Since those words first appeared on movie screens in 1939, 74 more years have passed - almost three quarters of a century - and those words are still true!

As for the quality of the film itself, considering that it was filmed on some of the very first color stock and not the top quality digitally produced high definition films we have gotten used to seeing, it was amazing. You had to look closely and want to see the grain for it to be visible. The color (it was a very early Technicolor film) was just beautiful. Even after all these years, when Dorothy first opened the door into Munchkinland, I still got goosebumps! The color was brilliant! Not the oversaturated colors one might see if the movie where made today, but a palette that would have made Baum proud. Not "in your face" but stunningly beautiful.

Of course, at this size, you are going to see things that you weren't meant to see even in theatrical releases on the screens of 1939. While the texture of the Scarecrow's burlap "skin" was sharp, so were the skull caps and the borders of the prosthetics used on other characters, particularly in the case of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion. But that didn't detract from the movie, in fact, perhaps I might not have noticed many of these things if I weren't looking for technical details.

However, what I did notice above all else, was the fact that you could see in Judy Garland's eyes, each and every kleig light in her field of view. In fact, in the Technicolor scenes, you could even tell how many there were, and which were key lights and which were fill lights. At times she had as many as four catchlights in each eye which when looked at closely were the kleig lights. Technicolor in those years required a huge amount of light. (In the sepia scenes, less light was needed so only two lights were ever visible.) Oddly enough, it was only in Dorothy's eyes that they were so visible. 

The 3D effect was good, but subtle as it should have been. Since the movie was not made in 3D, no cheesy 3D effects were included - and the one place where it could have been done - when the Winkies point their spears at our heroes, and the shot has them pointing directly into the camera - passed quickly and was not exaggerated for 3D. The 3 dimensionality only enhanced and never intruded.

For a movie in which I know every line (though I did catch one I don't ever remember hearing before) and every song ... it never gets old!

I will leave you with a bit of trivia about the movie, that the studio did not use as part of the original publicity for fear that it was such an amazing coincidence that they didn't believe the public would believe it ...

When putting together the wardrobe for the movie, they gathered a lot of the costumes for the Kansas scenes from thrift shops. One of the pieces that they obtained was the smoking jacket that Frank Morgan wore as Professor Marvel. A slip of paper in the pocket and the initials LFB lead the production crew to believe it might be somehow connected to the movie in a way that no one had anticipated. It was verified by Maud Baum, the author's widow, that the jacket had indeed once belonged to Lyman Frank Baum - the creator and author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from which the movie was adapted.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Summer's Ending

As we approach the end of another summer, I look back at the last weekend before Labor Day when, my son, my wife and myself brought the grandtwins down to an amusement park down at the Jersey shore. It couldn't have been a more perfect day.

Gotta love the whip!
Daddy keeping an eye on things

Who doesn't like an arcade?

Checking out the carousel art

Road rage?

Just out for a drive

C'mon Dad ... keep up!

Sean loves the slide

So does Lukas

An exciting ride

The favorite of the day ... the roller coaster

Lady Liberty?

Some scary gargoyles

Now it's time to start putting summer behind us. School starts this week and two weeks later summer officially leaves us behind and fall takes the stage - with the twins birthday and Halloween just over the horizon.

Enjoy the cooler weather - it's on its way!

Monday, September 2, 2013

We're Going to the Fair

It's Labor Day weekend - teachers are getting ready to go back to school, kids still have another week - summer vacations are over - and it's time for the Richmond County Fair!

This year we were there on Saturday of the long weekend - it appeared to have the least chance of rain coming in to spoil the day. It was hot and humid, but we did avoid any rainfall.

While it did seem as if there were fewer booths there this year - most noticeably Time Warner Cable ... perhaps looking to avoid customers disgruntled over CBS and it's stations being removed from the system - many of the usual sights were there ... such as the classic cars.

While there is not much of a harvest here on Staten Island - which is the traditional focus of a county fair - there are some backyard farmers who have submitted their results for judging ... as well as pie judging and a photo competition (in which one of my photos came in second place!).

On the streets you could see a stilt walking juggler ...

... as well as politicians looking for your vote ... such as NYC mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis.

Want something unusual? You are sure to find it.

There is plenty of entertainment from bands throughout the day in three different locations, as well as dog jumping competitions ...

... and an extreme skating and cycling demonstration.

As usual, the fair takes place on the grounds of Historic Richmondtown.

Feeling ambitious? There are plenty of competitions to sign up for ... but where is the diaper derby?

Don't forget the flea circus and medicine show.

Of course what county fair would be complete without the midway and it's food, games and rides?

And yes - don't forget the hot dog eating contest - another PR op for a politician. The fellow on the left was this year's winner, as he has been the four years previously.

Our day ends, as it usually does watching Scott the Magician perform.

See you back here next year!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Return to the Boardwalk

Yesterday was a beautiful summer day here on Staten Island.

I decided to visit a location where I have taken some photos in the past. Last October, it was in the path of greatest destruction when Superstorm Sandy came our way, but now it has been put back as it was, and I was happy to see it providing a place to gather on such a nice day.

Beach Patrol was out doing its thing ...

So I decided to take a walk down the fishing pier.

This comfortable day brought out many for a day of fishing.

He has a large stingray on his line. Many were hooked this day.
There are still many who are suffering the results of Superstorm Sandy, however, and a walk along the street just across from the boardwalk will show you houses that are still uninhabitable. But many are rebuilding, and here is just one sign that life goes on.