THE DVD SHELF: Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma!, Season One of "Smash," Mel Brooks, Hitchcock

By Steven Suskin
January 13, 2013

This month's column looks at the Blu-ray release of the Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman Oklahoma! starring Hugh Jackman; the first season of the TV series "Smash"; rarities from Mel Brooks; and Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 classic, "The Man Who Knew Too Much."



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Oklahoma!, that 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein masterwork which set Broadway's long-run musical mark back when a five-year run was unheard of, has remained visible over the years although not so omnipresent as the pair's The King and I and The Sound of Music. The show made brief appearances at City Center in the 1958, 1963 and 1965, with Rodgers himself producing an all-new version at the New York State Theatre (up in Lincoln Center). The first full Broadway revival came in 1979 — Rodgers died two weeks after the opening — with a London transplant the following year.

Things remained quiet until 1998, when director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Susan Stroman brought an all-new production starring Hugh Jackman to the Olivier at London's National Theatre. This was a smashing success, resulting in a commercial transfer starring Hugh Jackman at the Lyceum. Broadway plans were quashed in a dispute over the importation of the British actors, as a result of which this sure thing became something less than sure. It wasn't until 2002 that a drowsy facsimile reached local shores, with Nunn and Stroman but not starring Hugh Jackman (who had in the meantime became a movie star via "X-Men").

Watching the show at the Gershwin — with Patrick Wilson as Curly, playing opposite the Laurey and Jud from London — there were three likely explanations. Either (1) the show was vastly overpraised in London; (2) it lost a tremendous amount in the translation (and in the process of recasting and restaging, presumably by assistants rather than Nunn and Stroman); or (3) both.

The 1999 filming of the London production starring Hugh Jackman, now available on Blu-ray from Image Entertainment, suggests that (2) is the answer. Because this production is, all told, very good. It helps, needless to say, to have Mr. Jackman up there. Not yet a star, he was already clearly a star. But the whole show has a life to it which it sure didn't have when it got to New York. Watching this version, the material seems alive (as opposed to merely seeming like a revered classic). "Pore Jud Is Daid" is a good example of this. I expect that it was pretty lively when originally played by Alfred Drake and Howard Da Silva in 1943. And I'd guess that other couples have done well with it, too. Watching Jackman and Shuler Hensley here, though, the song is funny, morbid and bordering on the dangerous; you think, "ah, what a marvelous piece of writing!"

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Josefina Gabrielle and Hugh Jackman
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench
Which brings us to the rest of the cast. It seems odd to start with Jud, but he was perhaps the most successful element of the production. (Jackman made it a hit, and makes a wonderful Curly, but it's Hensley's Jud that makes it work.) Hensley was a little-known American actor when he took the stage at the National; he didn't make his Broadway debut until 2000, when he stepped into Nunn's Les Miserables as a replacement Javert. He is rivetingly good in Oklahoma! He won an Olivier for the role, and a matching Tony for his Jud at the Gershwin in 2002. (For what it's worth, Hensley — who just gave us a mesmerizing performance in The Whale at Playwrights Horizons — will next appear in another role created by Da Silva, as political ward heeler Ben Marino in Bock & Harnick's Fiorello! for the City Center Encores! series.)

Josefina Gabrielle completes the triangle as Laurey, and she is darling. Oddly so; she didn't come off nearly so well at the Gershwin, so I was somewhat surprised by her performance on the Blu-ray. Maureen Lipman, too, makes a large contribution as Aunt Eller. In the right hands, it seems, Eller is the glue that holds Oklahoma! together.

Image gives us a bonus feature, "The Making of Oklahoma!" The making of the filmed version of the Olivier production, that is. (The film starts and ends with a live audience, yet there is no applause throughout. The bonus explains that after the show closed, they moved the set into a studio so they could more properly film it.) Nunn and Stroman guide us through, with Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers representing R&H along with comments from Jackman, Gabrielle and Hensley.

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Broadway fans have had a mixed response to the DreamWorks series Smash [Universal]. On the one hand, it is wonderful to have a full-scale, mass market series about the creation of a real, contemporary Broadway musical! On the other hand, it is not an altogether realistic view of a real musical. On the third hand, it is stocked with Broadway performers (and creators, for that matter). On the fourth hand — well, you could go on and on. The salient point is that it exists, it is entering its second season (beginning Feb. 5), and fans and non-fans seem to keep watching it and talking about it. (Playbill.com's Kenneth Jones charted the first season in a series of columns called The Smash Report. Here's the column about the Season One finale.) 

If you have been living off in an igloo without cable or Internet, you might not know that "Smash" is about the making of Bombshell, a fictional musical (with songs by the non- fictional Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) about Marilyn Monroe. They go through a New York workshop and a Boston tryout, and have an altogether bumpy time of it. (While "Smash" has nothing to do with Funny Girl, the series is officially based on Garson Kanin's 1980 novel of the same title — which some see as a fictionalized version of the tryout of the Streisand musical, from which director Kanin was unceremoniously bounced and replaced by Jerome Robbins.)

In this case, the executive producers — including Steven Spielberg, Craig Zadan/Neil Meron, and Shaiman/ Wittman — and creator/head writer Theresa Rebeck give us Anjelica Huston as the producer, Debra Messing and Christian Borle as the songwriters, Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee as dueling Marilyns, and more. Also on hand in recurring roles are Broadway habitues Brian d'Arcy-James, Will Chase, Dylan Baker, Becky Ann Baker and Michael Cristofer. Guest stars include Uma Thurman, Bernadette Peters and Norbert Leo Butz. All this, plus those canny Broadway-style musical numbers from the authors of Hairspray.

The four-disc set includes all 15 episodes from Season One plus deleted scenes, extended versions of musical numbers, a gag reel and the featurette "Song and Dance," with Shaiman, Wittman and choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

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The indomitable Mel Brooks is well known, near and far, for being old, rich and outrageous. But that is only the late Mel Brooks (or, rather, the later Mel Brooks). Back in the earlier days of his career — before "The 2,000 Year Old Man" made him somewhat famous and "Blazing Saddles" made him infamous — he was merely younger, poorer and just as outrageous. As can be seen, at length, in The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy [Shout Factory]. Incredible and unhinged it is, for sure. While it nominally comes from Shout Factory, Brooks' grubby thumbprints are all over it. So not only is the material funny; it is assembled and overstuffed (and in places introduced) by the same awkward genius whom we see in material going back more than 60 years.

Given that Brooks is on board, this does not take up a mere two or three discs; we get five DVDs, stuffed with 11 hours of material. Plus, mind you, a full CD with even more laughs of the audio-only kind. This is the "History of the Mel Brooks World Part 1," plus parts 2, 3, and 0.5 too. Or the "Seven Ages of Brooks," as Shakespeare might have said if he ran into Mel back in the 1600s. Wait! Here is Shakespeare himself, on disc 5, doing a Brooks-written commercial for a banana. Or something of the sort, with beatniks.

The feature films are not included, understandably, as the rights payments would no doubt have been prohibitive; they are readily available elsewhere. (The CD does include soundtrack recordings of some of the musical highlights.) What we get is everything else, though, starting with Mel's first television appearance on a 1951 episode of the "Texaco Star Theater" (AKA "The Milton Berle Show"). He plays stooge to pitchman Sid Stone, and is altogether awkward. There are talk-show appearances; sitcom episodes (including that of the 1965 hit "Get Smart" and one of his Emmy-winning appearances on "Mad About You"); TV commercials; and much much much more. Watch out for two early gems: "Of Fathers and Sons," the spoof of Death of a Salesman that Mel wrote for the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, featuring Paul Lynde, Ronny Graham and Alice Ghostley; and the Oscar-winning 1963 animated short, "The Critic."

The whole is contained not in a box but within a 60-page hardcover book filled with juicy illustrations from the Brooks atelier plus essays by Leonard Maltin, Robert Brustein, Gene Wilder and Bruce Jay Friedman. No "Producers" or "Young Frankenstein" or "High Anxiety" here; just high insanity.

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Fans of Alfred Hitchcock have so many personal favorites that it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to discover the director in real time, in sequence. At what point among his 50-odd films, over 50-odd years, did it become apparent that this was a filmmaker unlike any other? This is a question we cannot begin to answer for any number of reasons. We can, though, go over the chronological list and circle the elemental films. The first, it seems to me, is the 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Criterion has just brought us in a newly-restored Blu-ray. (This is not to be confused with Hitchcock's 1956 remake of the same title, starring James Stewart and Doris Day, which is considerably different — I mean, Doris sings "Que Sera Sera" — but is pretty effective in its own right.)

Hitchcock started working in the new medium of talking pictures in 1929 with "Blackmail," learning and refining as he went along. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" was his eighth talkie, and it's here where everything comes together: a well-told story with distinctive characters, striking visuals, and a combination of thrills and humor that keep us engrossed. In this case, the title character stumbles upon a secret message hidden by a murdered British spy — as a result of which a ghoulish and vaguely middle-European villain kidnaps his young daughter to ensure his silence. The whole thing winds up with an assassination attempt at Royal Albert Hall — with the gunshot timed to a cymbal crash! — and a wild shootout in the East End.

Leslie Banks and Edna Best play the leading roles of the parents, with the child played by 14-year-old Nova Pilbeam (who three years later would be the heroine of "Young and Innocent"). The film is stolen, though, by what might be the first of the great Hitchcock performances. Peter Lorre, having just escaped from Nazi Germany, didn't even speak English yet; he learned his line phonetically, and he is chilling. (The Criterion catalogue also includes Fritz Lang's 1931 classic "M," in which Lorre is absolutely astonishing.)

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" does not quite make it onto the Hitchcockian Top Ten, but it is close. It clearly marked the start of his first string of great pictures, as it was closely followed by "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Young and Innocent" (1937) and "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). At which point Alfred went to Hollywood, where "Rebecca" (1940) began the next stage of his career.

The impeccably pristine digital restoration is accompanied by Criterion's usual assortment of bonus features, including new audio commentary (by historian Philip Kemp); a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro; "The Illustrated Hitchcock," a 1972 interview with Pia Lindstrom and William K. Everson; and audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut's 1962 interviews with the director.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)