Bless my Blu-ray forever…


The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews, 1965. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.


Back in the dark ages of VHS, I remember being thrilled when I could actually buy The Sound of Music and watch it whenever I wanted, not just on whatever holiday the networks chose to trot it out. Ever since I saw the movie on the big screen in the early ’70s, it had become one of my favorite things because Julie Andrews was right up there with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore in my youthful pantheon of perfection.

Then, as an adult, I saw The Sound of Music again on a big screen. It was like seeing a whole different movie from what I was used to seeing on videotape. The TV version was pan-and-scan, meaning they decided widescreen (with the black bars across the top and the bottom) was unacceptable but shifting focus on certain parts of that widescreen and cutting out the rest was perfectly all right. From then on I couldn’t watch the movie on TV unless it was letterboxed.

With the advent of DVD, letterboxing became the norm – preserving the original screen ration as the cinematographer and director intended. No more cutting out VonTrapp children during “Do Re Mi.” I didn’t mind shelling out more money for the DVD because the format seemed to be the apex of the home video revolution. Then came the special anniversary DVD edition of the movie, which featured new features, including interviews with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (not to mention a promotional film starring Charmian Carr about her life as a teen movie star working in Austria). Had to buy that one.

Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein folks released a box-set collection of all the R&H movie musicals (except Flower Drum Song), which included the special edition Sound of Music discs I already had. But I had to have the whole set.

If you’re counting, that’s four times I purchased The Sound of Music for my home collection. Somehow I bypassed the LaserDisc craze, so that saved me some money. And please don’t get me started on all the various versions of the soundtrack I’ve owned through the years (remember 8-track?).

I’m savvy enough to know that I’ll probably never be done spending money on The Sound of Music. Couldn’t resist going (more than once) to the Sing-Along Sound of Music at the Castro Theatre, and I’m always open to seeing the movie on a big screen in a theater with a great sound system. I thought about downloading a digital version of the movie, but it’s not available … yet. That one can’t be too far away.

Until then, we have yet another format and another potential purchase. Come next Christmas, we’ll be able to have a near-perfect Sound of Music experience in our own homes with the Blu-ray release. Here’s a teaser trailer.

For further VonTrappist fun, check out this entry in a long line of re-cut trailers casting sunny musicals as horror films. This one is my favorite of the Sound of Music efforts.


Mark McKinney: From Kids to `Arrows’

Mark McKinney (above right) spent last Saturday night onstage at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre with his fellow Kids in the Hall: Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald and Scott Thompson. The Canadian comedians were the deserving subjects of a SketchFest tribute.

Though he’s best known for his Kids characters — the Chicken Lady, the “I’m crushing your head” guy — the 48-year-old McKinney has been racking up some impressive post-Kids credits.
Most notably, McKinney helped create and write one of the best series to appear on TV in a long time. “Slings & Arrows,” the story of a fictional Canadian theater festival — the New Burbage Theatre Festival, to be exact — and its attempts to woo movie stars to appear onstage, to survive in difficult economic times and to breathe some life into Shakespeare.

McKinney also starred in the show as the company’s managing director, Richard Smith-Jones, who evolved over the course of the series’ three seasons from awkward businessman to thriving artist as he discovered his calling in life: to direct of musicals.

The complete “Slings & Arrows” series comes out in a DVD box set on Feb. 5 (Acorn Media, $59.99).

On the phone from his home, McKinney says the “Slings & Arrows” experience rates “really high” in his varied show business career.

“I got to act and write. It was a steep learning curve in every way,” he says. “As a writer I was developing themes about things I’ve always wanted to be creative about. And as an actor, I was playing a straight but comic role.”

The role of Richard wasn’t created for McKinney. He and his fellow writers, Susan Coyne (who played Anna, Richard’s beleaguered secretary in the series) and Bob Martin (who co-wrote and starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone) put the first season together, then McKinney had to audition for the role.

“Our director, Peter Wellington, wanted to see a bunch of people,” McKinney says. “He saw a lot of good actors. There was a lot of competition.”

It’s hard, now, to imagine anyone but McKinney in the role, as Richard takes a roundabout (and very funny) route from business to art.

Each season focused on the theater company’s major Shakespeare production. In the first season, it’s Hamlet (with guest star Rachel McAdams); in the second, it’s Macbeth and in the third, King Lear (with guest stars Sarah Polley and William Hutt in one of his final performances).

“Somewhere there’s a famous romantic trope that you keep youth in the foreground and age in the background,” McKinney explains. “That’s what we did: We completed a triangle. We went from youth to age in three seasons. From the beginning, Bob and Susan and I were ready to tell war stories. We found it was time to ask ourselves: What have we been doing?”

Though McKinney has been busy since his Kids in the Hall days — he was a story editor, then a recurring character on Aaron Sorkin’s NBC flop “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — he says when you hit 40, you have kids and you’ve “been successful without becoming catastrophically rich,” it’s time for assessment.

“You’re going to PTA meetings, and you realize the sexiness of being the leather-pants-wearing actor has worn off,” McKinney says. “The things that interested you at 20 haven’t all deserted you as you become less nihilistic, but they have begun to be replaced by deeper things.”

McKinney says he and Coyne and Martin would like to collaborate on a new project, but “Slings & Arrows” will always be special.

“This series brought me a lot of rich rewards,” he says. “Some projects are fun and fabulous, but you’re the same person before and after. This one was a life changer.”

Comparing his “Slings and Arrows” experience with his “Studio 60” experience, McKinney says “Slings” was a “life evolution that traversed a whole bunch of personal stuff I was going through and adapted to.” The “Studio 60” experience was “wonderful. I loved pulling up to the Warner Bros. lot every day. At first I was a story editor, then, half-way through, Aaron put me in the cast.”

Fans are still grieving the loss of “Studio 60,” McKinney says. “People come up to me all the time and tell me it was their favorite thing on TV. I apologize for its cancellation, we curse and spit on the ground and grouse about networks and money — mammon. I really wish that show had been on cable. On HBO it wouldn’t have had to capture such a large consensus.”

With the writers’ strike ongoing, McKinney and his fellow Kids in the Hall have talked seriously about a tour in the spring.

“We figure if we wait too much longer, we’ll all get too gouty,” he says. “We got together recently in Montreal and wrote some original material, which scared the pants off me. If we go out on the road, half of the material we do will be new.”

McKinney says the Kids have always loved playing San Francisco: “There are about five cities we do really well in, and that’s one. That first tour, we felt like the fat Beatles.”

Twenty years on, the Kids are all getting along. “When we were younger, we had arms to throw punches around,” McKinney says. “Getting back together in Montreal, we finally had universal appreciation for each other and what we’ve done together. It was fun and really special.”

And now for a treat: My favorite McKinney character is the Chicken Lady (her daddy was a farmer, and her mama was a hen). Here she is at a strip show:

Make `ShowBusiness’ your business

One of the most interesting documentaries of the year had nothing to do with health care or Iraq.

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway sort of slipped in and out of theaters without a whole lot of fanfare, which is really too bad because director Dori Berinstein has created a fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of four major musicals opening in New York during the 2003-2004 season.

Luckily, the movie came out on DVD this week (Liberation Entertainment, $28.95).

For her movie, Berinstein picked four musicals to follow, and boy did she pick good ones: Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and Taboo.

Bay Area audiences, of course, got the first look at Wicked during its pre-Broadway tryout. We had the great fortune to see Caroline, and Avenue Q made its overdue local debut last August. The only real mystery in this bunch is Taboo, the Rosie O’Donnell-produced ’80s flashback revolving around Boy George: his life, his music and himself (he was in the cast).

Of the four, Wicked and Avenue Q were monster hits and are still running. Caroline is an esteemed flop by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. And Taboo is known as one of Broadway’s great disasters.

The movie follows each of the shows from the summer of 2003 up to the Tony Awards in 2004 when Avenue Q upset favorite Wicked for the Best Musical award.

Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses of the creative process, the marketing machine and the economics of Broadway. One of the juiciest threads involves tension between Jeff Marx, the co-composer of Avenue Q and Jeff Whitty, the book writer who was brought on board relatively late in the creative process.

It all ends happily, with Tony Awards for everyone, but the two did not get along, and it’s not pretty. Marx’s parents, by the way, turn out to be a highlight of the movie.

Director Berinstein includes several round-table discussions with New York theater critics, and this, to me, is a horror show. These nattering fools (save Charles Isherwood from the New York Times, who salvages a shred of dignity) make critics look like the lowest possible bottom feeders in the show business pool. Ouch.

Covering such a diverse assortment of shows, Berinstein ended up with more than 250 hours of video that had to be whittled down to 104 minutes.

“The season was a roller coaster with highly anticipated shows closing early and little shows coming out of nowhere to take Broadway by storm,” Berinstein says. “There was no way to predict where the Season was heading. Consequently, it was necessary to capture everything. Editing, as a result, was a massive and extremely difficult process. Narrowing down our primary storytelling to four musicals was excruciating. So many extraordinary moments are on the cutting room so to speak. I can’t wait until we assemble the DVD.”

Visit the movie’s official site at

Here’s the trailer from ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, followed by a clip featuring Idina Menzel of Wicked.

`History’ shmistory

Don’t you love it when a celebrated London/Broadway play gets filmed with the original director and original cast? OK, so that hardly ever happens, but it has happend with Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. The play was hyperbolically huzzahed in London, and in New York, it won a ton o’ Tony Awards earlier this year..

Last week (at least in San Francisco), the movie opened, which made me grateful I hadn’t spent money on airplane tickets to either New York or London to see it. But let me say this: I’m sure it’s a much better play than movie.

Not that it’s a bad movie — it’s just trapped somewhere between being a lively (if unrealistic) play and a full-blown movie. As is, it’s stilted and sort of annoying (anytime characters quote from the great poets rather than recite their own dialogue gives me the willies).

Richard Griffiths as the headmaster with a penchant for fondling his male students does the most quote spouting (or gobbet spouting as they say in the movie), and he’s also — I hate to say this about such a lauded performance — irritating as all get out.

Frances de la Tour, on the other hand, is a marvel of control and restraint. She makes the most of a small role and makes us wish Bennett had given her more to do.

What I didn’t realize was that The History Boys was a musical of sorts, which must have been charming on stage. The boys (as part of the cultural learning) sing Rodgers and Hart and Gracie Fields songs (and a sweet “Bye, Bye Blackbird”). And if you stay for the credits, there’s a nice Rufus Wainwright version of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” with all the funny, slightly racy lyrics.

As for the young actors playing the Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls, they’re just fine (special shout out to Samuel Barnett as Posner, who does most of the singing).

This is a good movie to save for DVD — watch it on a Yorkshire-like rainy day. And you can gobbet me on that.

Kathy & Mo & Escape

The thought of a theater blog seems frivolous to me sometimes, especially on days when crazy men take hostages in a school. Or bombs fall in the Middle East. Or homicide rates ratchet up to 112 in cities where life should be better.

I guess it seems frivolous a lot of the time in this world. But when there’s stress and darkness outside, I retreat inside, and withthe help of TiVo and Netflix, I attempt escape.

One recent escape was quite successful because it involves two of my favorite funny women: Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, better known as Kathy & Mo.

Occasionally the gods of DVD smile, and some treasure is rescued from obscurity.

Just such a treasure is the newly released The Complete Kathy & Mo Show, a two-disc collection from Image Entertainment of the duo’s two HBO shows, Parallel Lives from 1991 and The Dark Side from 1995.

Parallel Lives was filmed at San Francisco’s Theatre on the Square and serves as a record of a brilliant show. I had just moved to the Bay Area and ended up seeing the show four times (I was there for the HBO filming). I remember thinking to myself while I soaked up Najimy and Gaffney’s comic brilliance: “This is exactly why I moved here.”

To my mind, Najimy and Gaffney are continuing the legacy of women in comedy pioneered by the likes of Lily Tomlin and Carol Burnett. Their sketch comedy (performed with few or no props and minimal costuming) is pointed and funny, compassionate and extremely human. Two of my favorite characters of theirs are the old ladies with a passion for continuing education, Madeline and Sylvia (Mad ‘n’ Syvvie, pictured below).

The two-disc set features the two shows on one disc and then a bonus disc with vintage footage of the duo’s early work stretching back to some 1983 show captured on someone’s home video camera.

One of the more recent sketches is from Kathy & Mo’s greatest hits show, which I saw in Los Angeles in 2004. It involves a support group for all the dead or missing moms from Disney animated films. Priceless.

There’s also commentary from Kathy and Mo, which begs the question: When can we see some new Kathy and Mo material? I need — and the world needs — some intelligent, emotional escape.

Drama geeks

Just watched an interesting DVD documentary about Stagedoor Manor, the summer camp for pre-teens and teens who just gotta sing and gotta dance. Famous alumni of the camp include Zach Braff, Natalie Portman and Mandy Moore. Reese Witherspoon said that a counselor at the camp told her to never, ever sing in public (as you may recall, Ms. Witherspoon won an Oscar this year for a role that required her to sing in public).

The movie, was directed by Alexandra Shiva and is a sweet tribute to that mysterious impulse that makes a person need to express creativity on a stage. The true theater geeks among you will know that this is the same summer camp that inspired the 2003 movie Camp, which is great fun.

The documentary, which runs a mere 79 minutes, is less fun if only because we don’t get to know the campers as well as we might. But those we do get to know — super-talented Randi Kleiner, ADD-afflicted Taylor Rabow, earnest Maddy Weinstein, wisecracking Nicole Doring and super-talented Robert Wright — are delightful.

As you might expect, there’s a lot of DRAMA, especially where the members of the camp’s elite cabaret performance group are concerned (what the heck is the kissing game that causes so much trouble?), but mostly the movie is a sweet testament to the satisfaction of drama geeks finding other drama geeks and putting on a big show.

Watch the trailer here.