Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

So, I turned 40 in 2011!  I wasn’t alone in this, among the luminaries joining me were Ewan McGregor, Mark Wahlberg, Winona Ryder, Mariah Carey and Sacha Baron Cohen, not that it gave many any great comfort in the face of reaching middle age!  Still, as the lavish 80th birthday bash for Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim revealed he commenced a decade of his best work when he turned 40, starting with the groundbreaking concept musical Company in 1970 which surprised audiences looking for escapism by holding a mirror up to them in a series of vignettes about Bobby, a single New Yorker unable to commit to a steady relationship.

Company was followed by Follies in 1971 about a fading Broadway theatre scheduled for demolition allowing the resident troupe to look back at their lives.  Then came A Little Night Music in 1973 the show, that features Sondheim’s most recognised song Send in the Clowns, is partially based on Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and explores the romantic lives of several couples over the course of one weekend.  The aloof and esoteric Pacific Overtures opened in 1976, focusing on the gradual westernisation of Japan it seemed an obscure subject for a Broadway show, presented in Kabuki style it closed in under 200 performances.

Sondheim ended the 1970s on a high note with what many consider his masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a macabre musical thriller in the Grand Guignol tradition, the initial Broadway production ran for nearly 600 performances and featured Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.  The show has had numerous revivals and benefitted from Tim Burton’s authentic feature film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.  The productions from this challenging yet inspirational decade were directed by Harold Prince and his work with Sondheim usually produced a Marmitesque response, audiences were divided between those that loved the brash deconstructionism of cosy Broadway and those that resisted it preferring a less disquieting night out at the theatre.

I was exposed to the world of musical theatre and classical composition one Christmas in my teens when the BBC screened Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard Lectures; a natural communicator and infectious teacher Bernstein covered the history of western musical theory at lightning speed and I was instantly hooked.  I wanted to listen to anything that had his name on it and this brought me to West Side Story and consequently Stephen Sondheim who cut his teeth as a lyricist on that show in 1957.  I read up on Sondheim and did try to get into Sweeney Todd but my ears were not ready, to me at the time it seemed too dissonant, which I find astonishing now as melodies like My Friends, Johanna and Pretty Women sound totally irresistible to me and I wonder how the teenaged me failed to be wooed by them; is this a symptom of turning 40?!

To celebrate his 80th birthday at New York’s Lincoln Centre a host of Broadway stars gathered including Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Joanna Gleason.  The evening was recorded for the Public Broadcasting Service network and released on region free Blu-ray by Image Entertainment.  As far as I am aware this has not been screened on UK television yet so this home release is very welcome.  The Master of Ceremonies for the evening is Frasier’s Niles, David Hyde Pierce and not only does he provide witty repartee and nuggets of note from Sondheim’s illustrious career, he also manages to sing Beautiful Girls from Follies in a dozen different languages!  All of the Hal Prince shows are well represented here; including Sweeney Todd which features two of Broadway’s Sweeneys who spar wonderfully with each other.

One unforgettable highlight of the show is a song-cycle featuring Sondheim’s various leading ladies in stunning red dresses, apart from Elaine Stritch, who sports red slacks and a peaked cap, this allows for a bit of barbed banter from Patti LuPone when she sings Ladies Who Lunch the song Stritch originated in Company, LuPone emphasises the line “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and gives Stritch a sly look, but the 85 year old trooper is undeterred and gives a marvellous rendition of I’m Still Here a song from Follies that she’s made her own since her Tony award winning one-woman show At Liberty.  The show ends with the entire cast singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sondheim and he takes to the stage, unfortunately he doesn’t make a speech but he is clearly overwhelmed by the occasion.

The Blu-ray release is pretty basic, there are no extras to speak of, but the picture quality is faultless in 1080p and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by long-time Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani really shine on the crystal clear DTS-HD soundtrack.  I thoroughly recommend this release for any fan of musical theatre, even those unfamiliar with the shows will be surprised by the accessibility of the songs selected here; all are eclectic gems outstandingly performed by artistes at the top of their game who clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Stephen Sondheim.

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Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition

In 1959 Alfred Hitchcock signed a deal with Universal Studios allowing him to make any picture he liked as long as the budget was under $3 million.  He still owed Paramount Pictures a movie under contract so, inspired by the box office success of maverick B-Movie producer/director Roger Corman, he decided to make a very low-budget feature in black and white using the TV crew who worked on his popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. 

Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is very impressive both in terms of picture and sound quality and also a banquet of bonus material.  The video is presented in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer with lossless DTS-HD 5.1 master audio soundtrack both radically improving on the previous DVD release.  Equally improved is the quality of the print, the blacks are exceedingly deep and all the defects that marred the DVD release are gone leaving a spotless, pristine image as good as any modern day release which is pretty remarkable for a film that’s half a century old.

It’s hard to imagine now how much impact Psycho must have had on its first audiences, the marketing campaign which refused admittance to the cinema after the programme had started and the personalised appeal from Hitch not to reveal the surprise ending really paid dividends.  These days the name of Norman Bates is synonymous with serial murder, matricide and schizophrenia but in 1960 audiences were completely taken in by Anthony Perkins hen-pecked, stammering but disarmingly charming Motel proprietor.

Thought by many to be the archetypal Hitchcock thriller in actual fact Psycho bears little resemblance to any of the Director’s previous suspense features which had in common big budgets, lavish Technicolor photography of tourist spots and grand interiors, glamorous leading men and women in designer garments who, whilst they courted danger, the audience knew they would live to tell the tale; Marion Crane’s fate would be entirely different altogether.    

In casting Janet Leigh as Marion Crane Hitchcock played a very clever trick on his audience, he knew they would totally sympathise with Marion’s doomed romantic interludes with a married man who couldn’t afford to leave his wife and entirely support her dubious decision to make off with $40,000 of her firm’s funds rather than deposit them at the bank.  Even though I have seen the film countless times I am still taken in by the setup and totally believe that this is going to be Marion’s story and it’s a testament to the playing of both Leigh and Perkins that it’s still a shock when you realise it’s not about her, it’s actually about him.

This pivotal turning point is driven home by the unforgettable shower scene, a montage of 50 individual shots, intricately cut together to the startling sounds of Bernard Herrmann’s string motif creating one of the most iconic moments in cinema history.  From here on the audience who has vested all their emotional support in Marion now transfer these feelings to Norman, believing him to be an innocent, browbeaten Mother’s boy who’s simply trying to cover up her jealous crimes of passion.

It is fair to say that Psycho is somewhat uneven and I do not enjoy the scenes with Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and her boyfriend (John Gavin), although the moment where Miles discovers Mrs. Bates mummified skeleton in the cellar is visually striking; yet for the most part their scenes feel prescribed and a little wooden.  Equally the tacked on scene at the end with the psychoanalyst might have felt necessary in 1960 but by today’s standard it seems a trite and prosaic explanation of Norman’s condition.  These minor criticisms do not detract from the overall power the film still has to enthral and shock modern audiences.

I was glad to find amongst the numerous extras the ‘Making Of’ documentary from the US Collector’s Edition DVD; this feature length, comprehensive account written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau is packed with interviews with the cast, including Janet Leigh and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia along with contributions from screenwriter Joseph Stefano.  I hope this series will appear in subsequent Universal releases as I have yet to see them bettered and a lot of the key technical and creative personnel who regularly worked with Hitchcock are no longer alive to comment.  I cannot conceive of Psycho looking any better than it does in this hidef presentation and I hope that Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds and Marnie follow it without an unnecessary hiatus.

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Stop Making Sense: 25th Anniversary Edition

Like most teenagers of my generation I became fanatical about music, obsessive even, and at the high point I was acquiring an average of 4 record albums a week.  It’s hard to imagine a world before iTunes or even the Compact Disc where you had to search shops for recordings of your favourite artists and a lot of my most treasured albums were obtained second hand as they were out of print.

Collecting records was an active pursuit, often involving train journeys to London or Cambridge and on the way home I’d read every single printed word on the album cover and the record sleeve in anticipation.  I’m not saying I appreciate the music that I download in a mouse click now any less but the pride one had in physically building your own “record collection” has gone.

It was on one such record buying trip to London that I stumbled across a copy of Stop Making Sense on video in HMV.  I already had a couple Talking Heads albums on vinyl although I was not familiar with the entire set list but I was intrigued to read on the cover that it was photographed by Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and directed by Jonathan Demme and whilst this was before Silence of the Lambs, I had seen his films Something Wild and Married to the Mob and I’d recently seen Spalding Gray’s incredible monologue Swimming to Cambodia on television which Demme had directed; that was pedigree enough for me to buy this sight unseen.

Nothing could prepare me for Stop Making Sense as I had only heard Talking Heads on record and seen them in the Road to Nowhere video and whilst I had read an interview with David Byrne in a Rolling Stone magazine anthology I had got as a Christmas present that year, he had come across as a completely sane individual.  As you can imagine, once the familiar Pablo Ferro titles (as seen in the classic Stanley Kubrick satire Dr. Strangelove) fade and Byrne walks out and places a tiny cassette player on the stage and announces “I’ve got a tape I want to play” staring direct into the camera, singing Psycho Killer and accompanying himself on his acoustic guitar in his strange staccato-like manner, I did a massive double-take!

I’d never heard this strange song before and I’d never seen Byrne, or anyone else for that matter, perform like this before.  Add to that the deconstructive technique of slowly assembling the set, adding the band members, their instruments and the lights one by one until the entire ensemble are on stage lit for the concert performance; I knew I was watching something unique, something important that was going to be remembered for years to come.

The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Stop Making Sense has been remastered from a 35mm interpositive print and it is vastly superior to the previous DVD release.  As so much of the stage action takes place in stark lighting the DVD suffered from intense grain and washed out colour so to see such rich flesh tones and the deep reds and blacks is a radical improvement.  There are even more striking audio enhancements in the two 5.1 DTS-HD soundtracks, one of the original live recording and a studio mix which was made by the band for the DVD release which is definitely worth listening to as it was the first concert film that was recorded digitally.

Apart from the bizarre David Byrne self-interview that was also on the initial DVD release the exclusive Blu-ray extra is an hour long press conference featuring all the band members recorded to mark the 15th anniversary of the film in 1999.  Whilst it’s not broadcast quality video the discussion is vibrant and it’s good to see Byrne reunited with Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison and hear their first hand perspective on working on the film and marvel at the landmark that it has become.

I could happily watch Stop Making Sense once a week, perhaps even once a day, and never tire of it, be in no doubt that this is the definitive concert movie and it’s of little surprise that there hasn’t been a concert film since that holds a candle to it, now does anybody have any questions?!

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