Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., is a magnificent biopic detailing the life and loves of the innovative showman. The lush tale opens at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where Ziegfeld shows off his latest attraction, Sandow the Strongman. Ziegfeld and his lifelong competitor, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), vie for audience attention with the wily Ziegfeld finally winning out and setting a precedent for all their future competitions. Ziegfeld's story is one of overcoming obstacles to create some of the most spectacular, over-the-top stage shows ever. No matter whether the hitch was attracting an enthusiastic audience, scrounging up financial backers when he was completely broke, or discovering the right stars for his shows, the determined and charming Ziegfeld always seemed to be successful in the end.

Ziegfeld leaves the sideshow of Chicago for the Great White Way. He starts to make a name for himself among the vaudeville and burlesque shows of New York City through his work with some of the most popular acts of the day, including Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice (who appeared in the movie). And, of course, a neverending bevy of showgirls. Ziegfeld establishes his signature spectacular stage shows with the introduction of French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), whom he steals right out from under Jack Billings' nose. Soon he has the pretty French coquette under contract and under his spell. They marry, and he begins a string of Broadway hits with his new bride in a starring role. Ziegfeld's popularity peaks with the Ziegfeld Follies, featuring song and dance numbers that glorify beautiful women. Many of his spectacular song and dance revues are recreated for the movie, and they are truly a feast for the senses. The sets shimmer and spin like runway models. The costumes sparkle in a fantastic sea of gossamer skirts, sequins, glitter, and feathers. The symphonic pitter-patter of (seemingly) hundreds of tap dancing girls is absolutely spine-tingling. Each number is more extravagant than the last. It seems as if everything he touches turns to gold.

While his Broadway hits keep his name in lights for many years, Ziegfeld always seems to have financial issues. The more lavish his stage shows become, the more money he has to borrow from his lenders. His old competitor, Jack Billings, often ends up finding him backers and money. Ziegfeld also experiences some unexpected flops as Hollywood's influence begins to eclipse that of Broadway. In his personal life, his appreciation of pretty girls eventually dooms his marriage, but Ziegfeld's divorce from Anna Held facilitates his next marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Perhaps it's my excitement at seeing one of my favorite cinematic duos together again, but Billie Burke seems like the love of Ziegfeld's life. Personally, I found the dramatic aspects of the movie really picked up once Loy entered the scene and Rainer wasn't on the screen so much. Ziegfeld's story has a relatively happy ending, as he is happily married with a child and has some late-career success back on Broadway, including a show about the circus that is reminiscent of his sideshow beginnings in Chicago.

Although I generally enjoyed the movie, I was surprised to discover that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Luise Rainer won best Best Actress for her portrayal of Anna Held. I suppose I thought the overlong movie was good but not quite that good! The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and produced by Hunt Stromberg for M-G-M. The scriptwriter (William Anthony McGuire), the set designer (John Harkrider), and the choreographer (Seymour Felix) for the movie had all worked previously for Ziegfeld. There's a lot more information on the movie at Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of clips from the film online. My two favorite numbers from the movie were 'You've Never Looked So Beautiful Before,' which is like a fashion magazine come to life and the Ziegfeld Follies showstopper, 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,' which I managed to find on the website, Dailymotion. It's like a gigantic rotating wedding cake! That's Entertainment shows about half of the number, but you have to watch the movie (or head over to Dailymotion) for the full clip.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Patti Lupone & Mandy Patinkin (2010)

This past weekend I saw "An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin" at Proctors Theater in Schenectady. I was overjoyed when I saw this program on the schedule and bought tickets months ago. Finally the day arrived! The weather cooperated and I wasn't even sick (almost everyone I work with had a stomach bug).

The first disappointment came when we found our seats. They were close to the stage (row H) and had a good view although they were off to the side. The problem was that they were narrower than the seats in the center section! By about three inches! My husband took the aisle seat (his reward for being dragged there) while I was squashed between him and the woman next to me, who apparently felt she didn't have to limit herself to just her seat, but could lean into my space as well.

The program contained the full song list, and I was happy to see a large dose of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the form of a South Pacific medley (great - my favorite!) and a Carousel medley (actually my least favorite R & H musical) tempered by a generous helping of Sondheim (which I like even less than Carousel). There were some other random songs, too, including two of my favorites, Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Irving Berlin's "You're Just in Love." I was sorry to see that "I'd be Surprisingly Good for You" from Evita was not on the list. Although this was not a Lupone/Patinkin duet in Evita, I had hoped they would sing it.

Then the show started and the disappointment continued. I wanted to love the show. Maybe my expectations were too high. Evita was 30 years ago, after all. Anyway, the set was simple and there was a pianist and a bass player. Patti and Mandy were dressed in simple black costumes (Patti in pants for the first set and then a dress). There was no introduction or any dialogue directed at the audience. In fact, it was really more of a play than a concert with all the songs connected.

The South Pacific medley was a bit disappointing. They actually performed an abbreviated scene with dialogue from the play and sang "A Cockeyed Optimist," "Twin Soliloquies," and "Some Enchanted Evening." The singing wasn't bad, but they definitely were not the best renditions I've heard of those songs. I think the thing I objected to most was the fact that the scene was played for laughs. Sure, there are some humorous elements there, but it's just not particularly funny. In fact, the whole show was played for laughs. And people laughed. Including the woman next to me who was braying like a donkey into my ear. It got so bad that I was eagerly anticipating the Carousel medley - there's no way to make that funny, and thankfully the braying subsided for a few minutes.

Patti sang a solo "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" before the intermission and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" after. She can still belt them out, but other songs didn't fare as well.

The "Baby It's Cold Outside" duet, which has clever lyrics, was sung so fast that it was impossible to hear it clearly. Although recording is prohibited at shows like this, I did find someone on YouTube that recorded a different performance. Here it is:

Courtesy of Squeegeebeckenheim on YouTube

Here's "You're Just in Love:"

Courtesy of Squeegeebeckenheim on YouTube

This performance is actually worse than I remember. I think I could sing it as badly as this.

The audience also contributed to the negative experience in other ways. Naturally there was the interminable rustling of candy wrappers after the intermission (Proctors allows food and drink in the theater). Also a woman in front of us began to shake violently at the start of every song. My first thought was a grand mal seizure, but no, she was just enjoying the music. Whatever happened to quietly tapping your toe? And then the guy next to me began complaining loudly at the intermission about how bad the performance was. First about how their voices were shot and then about Patti Lupone's enormous posterior. While I agreed with these statements, I wouldn't have voiced them in public during the show. But my husband just couldn't keep it to himself.

Sadly, I found myself wondering if it was worth attending this show. Was there any benefit to seeing it live? I had to conclude no. I would have enjoyed it more as an episode of "Great Performances" from the comfort of my living room. The only benefit was seeing it at all, and had a I seen the clips on YouTube first, I might have concluded it wasn't worth it at all, that it was better to just let Mandy and Patti live on as Che and Eva on my record where they still sound wonderful.

Stage Door Canteen (1943)

I recently watched 1943's star-studded Stage Door Canteen again. I've seen this movie a few times over the years, and when I found a DVD at the dollar store not long ago I decided to get it. The plot of the movie is simple: three GIs on leave in New York go the the Stage Door Canteen, a real USO club staffed by real stars and pretty young women. The GIs fall for some girls while being entertained by the likes of Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, Ray Bolger, Edgar Bergen, Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo, Freddy Martin, Gypsy Rose Lee, etc., etc. There were some great songs and hot lindy hopping. Strangely, the one song that's not in this movie is "I Left my Heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

Here's Peggy Lee singing "Why Don't You Do Right" with the Benny Goodman Orchestra:

Courtesy of John1948Ten on YouTube

This isn't my favorite song from the movie. That happens to be "The Machine Gun Song" by Gracie Fields, but I don't see a clip of that (and I haven't figured out how upload something myself yet). This movie is definitely worth watching if you like big band music, swing dancing, or World War II. Pick it up from the dollar bin today!

Enchanted (2007)

I've fallen behind in posting again, so I'll just have a few brief updates. First, I finally watched Disney's Enchanted from 2007. This worked its way to the top of the Netflix queue last month. I didn't think about it being a musical when I sat down to watch it, but being a Disney movie it does make sense. It featured songs with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

This was a delightful movie, and the musical numbers were quite enjoyable. Amy Adams was lovely as Giselle. The only thing I didn't like about the movie was Patrick Dempsey. It's beyond me what's "dreamy" about him.

My favorite scene was the "Happy Working Song:"

Courtesy of DisneyEnchantedMovie on YouTube