THE RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN COLLECTION – Blu-ray review

If you’re a fan of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, the question you want answered immediately is whether this Blu-ray collection is worth buying. I get it. But whether YOU get it depends on your situation.

If you already own “The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” on DVD and want to know if you should upgrade, my question is, Do you care mostly about the movies? If so, then the answer is an emphatic YES, do upgrade. The quality of these films is far superior on the Blu-ray collection. But if you’re into bonus features, then you have a tougher decision. Missing from this Blu-ray set is the 1962 version of “State Fair” and the second-disc bonus features from “The Sound of Music.” Now, if Fox had asked my opinion (and of course they never do), I would have told them that since the newly remastered version of the 2.20:1 Todd AO version of “Oklahoma!” looks so fantastic and most people will prefer it on this set to the CinemaScope version, I would have liked it better had they left out the Cinemascope “Oklahoma! and included “The Sound of Music” bonus features. Or heck, just order a custom Blu-ray case and include everything. True fans will pay the price, especially when a collection is as seminal as this one.

If you don’t already have this collection on Blu-ray, it’s a no-brainer to add it.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II teamed to create five of the most successful musicals ever to play on Broadway, and all five are presented here as equally successful film adaptations. Some in music theater have called Rodgers and Hammerstein the best partnership Broadway has seen, and it’s hard to argue with their cumulative 34 Tony Awards and 15 Academy Awards.

“South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” are the only titles from this collection that are already available on Blu-ray, and while the former features the same two discs (the second featuring a standard definition roadshow version of the musical) as the stand-alone Blu-ray release, the latter is inexplicably missing that second disc of bonus features—and I use that adverb because the Robert Wise musical is perhaps the most beloved of all Rodgers & Hammerstein film adaptations, and the only Best Picture winner in this collection. So if you’re going to skimp, why do it with the best film of the bunch?

During the Forties and Fifties—a golden age for American musicals on Broadway—Rodgers and Hammerstein created enough quality shows to land them on a U.S. postage stamp 40 years after their final collaboration, “The Sound of Music.” Their body of work also earned them a place on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential artists.

Included here is the dynamic duo’s very first collaboration, “Oklahoma!” (or rather, the 1955 film version of their 1943 Broadway debut), along with the made-for-film “State Fair” (1945), “Carousel” (1956, based on the 1945 musical), “South Pacific” (a 1958 adaptation of the 1946 staged version), “The King and I” (1956, based on the 1951 musical), and “The Sound of Music” (a 1965 adaptation of their 1959 final effort).

What more can you ask for, if you’re a fan of music theater?

 

“Oklahoma!” won an Oscar for Best Score with songs like the rousing title tune, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are both believable and compatible as a young cowboy and the girl that captures his fancy. Set during the time when Oklahoma was poised to become a state, “Oklahoma!” features big dance numbers, comic relief from Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame as the girl who “cain’t say no”), and Rod Steiger as the brooding, “Phantom of the Opera”-style ranch hand who wants Laurey (Jones) for himself. “Oklahoma!” translated well to the big-screen, and when you compare it with the less successful “South Pacific” you can see that it’s partly because of the performances. MacRae and Jones don’t just hit their marks, they fill the frames.

“Oklahoma!” is a film artifact insomuch as that it was the first big title to be released in theaters on the new Todd-AO,  with its curved screen and bigger picture. Todd-AO required all new equipment, so it wasn’t widespread. This version looked faded in the DVD set, but remastered? It’s far superior to the more popular CinemaScope release (2.55:1).

“Oklahoma!” has a rousing score, engaging characters, a strong storyline, and beautiful scenery (it was shot in Texas and won another Oscar for Best Cinematography). But perhaps most importantly for a romantic musical, the leads have compatible voices and great chemistry. I’d give it an 8 on the Movie Met scale.

 

“State Fair” is a slice of Americana that delivers a picture-perfect glimpse into Midwestern farm life and that annual institution that’s as big, for rural folks, as the Academy Awards. I’ve been to the Illinois State Fair as a teen and many years later as an adult, and like a grove of trees that looks the same from year to year, little has changed. There are still harness races, livestock competitions, home economics competitions, carnival midways, and band pavilions. Some will watch “State Fair” and think it corny; others will just recognize it as a snapshot of Rockwellian America at it’s wholesome, toothy-smiling best.

I can understand why Fox omitted the 1962 version. The original 1945 film has more genuine heart and charm and and feels more authentic.  Jeanne Crain and Dick Haymes really sell it as brother and sister who go to the fair with their parents and each have romantic entanglements—she, with a slick reporter (Dana Andrews) who’s used to a faster style of gal, and he with a well-known band singer (Vivian Blaine) who comes to his rescue in a dispute with a carney. The film manages to convey a real slice-of-life sense of rural America and state fairs while also staying on track for a dual romantic plot that’s offset by mom and dad’s exploits in the pickle judging and swine competition. The worst cuss word you’ll hear uttered is a strange one (“Christmas!”), everything is so gosh-darned wholesome. But I’m here to tell you that it’s also gosh-darned accurate—especially for a WWII-era film. The most memorable songs are “Our State Fair (is a GREAT State Fair),” “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and “It’s a Grand Night for Singing.” Look for a very young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter in “M*A*S*H) as a carnival barker and “Pa Kettle” (Percy Kilbride) as a local farmer.

 

“Carousel,” meanwhile, is an anomaly insomuch as it’s a dark, downer of a musical that, if it were an opera, might well have been been penned by Richard Wagner. Inspired by “Liliom,” a play set in Budapest, it was relocated to the New England coast by R&H and fitted with another full complement of songs, including the haunting “Carousel Waltz,” “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was MacRae and Jones again, with MacRae playing rougish Billy Bigelow, a carousel barker and womanizer who, against his better judgment and instincts, marries a woman he falls for. But he falls in with a petty crook who asks him to get a knife and help him hold up the girl’s rich employer. I’m not giving a thing away by saying that Billy dies, because we know that from the very beginning. He’s shown in a stagey “heaven” polishing stars that look like gigantic Christmas ornaments and is given the chance to go back to earth to help a teenaged daughter he didn’t know he had. Their story is told in flashback, with location scenery providing an interesting backdrop.

Though this musical is frequently praised, the part of me that watches musicals to feel uplifted doesn’t respond to “Carousel” as much as I do to other R&H offerings—even the underrated “State Fair.” It was Rodgers’ favorite, though, and a favorite of many critics as well, and it gets another 7 from me, despite the dark aspects.

 

“South Pacific” is the coin-toss of the bunch. Some people are going to respond to it well, while others will think that something got lost between the stage and Hawaii, where most of the production was filmed. I’m one of the latter, though I have to admit that I love watching it because of a handful of songs and the gorgeous cinematography. Another film (“Gigi”) swept the musical awards that year, but it’s hard not to like tunes like “Bloody Mary,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”

The thing about “South Pacific” is that I never really buy into the plot because Mitzi Gaynor, as the wide-eyed American nurse serving on a Pacific island during WWII, and older opera star Rossano Brazzi, who plays a rich French planter, don’t have much chemistry. What’s worse, their singing voices aren’t compatible, and it cracks me up every time Brazzi bursts into an operatic bellow just three inches from Gaynor’s ear. Yet Gaynor sings “small,” as if feeling out of her element in the great Hawaiian outdoors instead of on a more contained stage—while playing it, in terms of her gestures and blocking, as if she were on a small stage. The result is an odd sort of disconnect.

The other thing is that whenever a song comes, the corners of the screen are deliberately softened by a colored haze that also partially fills the screen. I’m one of those who would have been perfectly content had the done that for “Bali ha’i” and then quit. To add that kind of dream-state quality to songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” seems just plain silly. At 157 minutes this is a LONG film, but because the scenery is gorgeous, the subplot about coast watchers is engaging, and there are enough memorable songs, “South Pacific” is still worth watching. If it weren’t for the length, the hazy screens, and the disconnects, this one would merit a 7, As it is, it’s still a 6, flaws and all, because of the scenery and music.

 

“The King and I” was another smash both on Broadway and film, with the bald-pated Yul Brynner playing the king on stage over 4,600 times. He IS the king . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And Deborah Kerr is the perfect foil, as Anna Leonowens/Owens, who became governess to the children of the King of Siam in the 1860s. The film version won five Oscars, including one for Brynner, Best Score, Art-Set Direction, and Sound Recording. The film is still a powerful costumer all these years later, with, perhaps, the lone exception that the long “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play that Anna directs the children to perform for visiting dignitaries gets longer every year. But the songs? “The King and I” is loaded with memorable tunes: “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Shall We Dance.”

It’s a classic story of culture clash, gender clash, and a developing bond between a stubborn English woman and the leader of a nation that many in the West considered barbaric. As Anna and the King spar, then become hesitantly close, viewers are drawn into a romantic musical of great complexity, with the young lovers’ subplot and Uncle Tom play serving as interpretive keys. If it wasn’t for that overly long “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” performance this one would merit a 10. It’s Hollywood majesty at it’s best, and musical theater vibrantly conveyed to the big screen: a solid 9.

 

“The Sound of Music” is without a doubt Rodgers & Hammerstein’s crowning achievement and a fitting final collaboration. It overwhelmed audiences from the start with it’s story of the von Trapp family, a singing group that fled Austria for Switzerland during the Nazi occupation. Exteriors were shot on location, so there’s a beautiful authenticity to complement a storyline that’s classic: a woman studying to be a nun doesn’t seem particularly suited to a convent, and is sent to serve as governess for a widowed Austrian captain. There, she reintroduces song into the household, becomes beloved to the children, and falls in love with her employer. How do you solve a problem like Maria? You fall in love with her, though you’re engaged to a baroness. And you merge a romantic triangle with a blended family tale set against the backdrop of war. When Capt. von Trapp leads the crowd at the Salzburg music festival in a chorus of “Edelweiss” with Nazi officials in attendance, it’s as stirring a moment as those dueling national anthems in “Casablanca.”

And the songs? In addition to the title song, there’s “Maria,” “I Have Confidence,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “Something Good,” and “Edelweiss,” which is not an Austrian anthem, but rather a song written especially for the musical.

Julie Andrews was made to play the part of Maria, and opposite Christopher Plummer there’s a palpable attraction between them. Though children can be a pitfall, here they’re incorporated deftly into the narrative and their personalities add to the film, rather than cause it to come untracked. Though there’s a second-act sag that’s partly caused by the absence of song, I’d still have to rate this as one of the best musicals of all-time, ranking right up there with “Singin’ in the Rain.” For musical theater lovers, it’s a blockbuster film, and as close to a 10 as you can get.

Video:
There’s a 20-year span here between the first and last film, and quality varies from feature to feature. But each of these films hasn’t looked better. It’s a collection that Rodgers & Hammerstein would be proud of, I think. “State Fair” is the only one still in Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1). Everything else is widescreen: “Carousel” and “The King and I” are presented in 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen, “Oklahoma!” in both 2.55:1 CinemaScope and 2.20:1 Todd-AO, and “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific” in anamorphic widescreen 2.20:1.  All of the films have far more detail than their DVD counterparts, and in the spectacle films (“South Pacific,” the Todd-AO “Oklahoma!” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music”) the colors evoke Hollywood at its richest, while “Carousel” remains somewhat murky. If you go to Amazon you’ll see that some collectors aren’t happy with the color calibration, but I’m looking at skin tones and wondering what’s their problem?

Audio:
Except for “The King and I,” an English DTS-HD MA 4.0 that at times seems to struggle with the channeling nuances of center speaker sound (there are jumps in volume, and the shifting sounds at times draws attention to itself), the sound in this collection is quite good. The bass isn’t thunderous, but solid and steady, and both the treble and mid-range notes have exceptional clarity. But there are exceptions to that.

“State Fair” (1945) is the most primitive, presented in English DTS-HD MA Mono, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.  But the Mono track is still clear and clean and, when the songs kick in, even robust.

The Todd-AO version of “Oklahoma!” is the powerhouse track and the biggest surprise of this package, with an incredible English DTS-HD MA 7.1 filling the room with sound (and subtitles also in English SDH, French and Spanish). It completely overshadows the DTS-HD MA 4.0 track on the CinemaScope version (yet another reason that disc could have been left out of the set).

“Carousel” has that same English DTS-HD MA 4.0 track, but with Spanish Dolby Digital Mono and a Music-only 2.0 options as well, and subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.  Though it might be faithful to the original sound design, there’s that same sense of containment that we get at times in the “Oklahoma!” 4.0 track.

“The King and I” has the same English DTS-HD MA 4.0 track, with Spanish and French Dolby Digital Mono options and a Dolby Digital 2.0 music-only track. Subtitles again are in English SDH, French and Spanish.

“South Pacific” has a rousing English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, with additional options in English Dolby Digital 4.0, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and a 2.0 music-only track. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Finally, “The Sound of Music” has a wonderful English DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack with a Dolby Digital 4.0 option and additional audio options in French DTS 5.1 and Portuguese and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish. What, no German?

Extras:
This is an eight-disc collection: one “State Fair” disc, two “Oklahoma! discs, one “Carousel” disc, one “The King and I” disc, two “South Pacific” discs, and one “Sound of Music Disc.”  Given how cheaply Fox has been packaging multi-disc collections, I held my breath as I opened the box. But they did the right thing. Inside a sturdy cardboard sleeve is an oversized Blu-ray case with four plastic pages and each disc housed on its own plastic spindle.

With the exception of that missing “Sound of Music” disc and the 1962 “State Fair,” all of the bonus features are the same as on the previous release.

The “Oklahoma!” Todd-AO disc features a commentary by Jones and film historian Nick Redman, a commentary I actually enjoyed more than the one on the CinemaScope version from Ted Chapin (the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) and film historian Hugh Fordin. There’s also a sing-along feature, theatrical teaser and trailers, some fantastic stage clips from a 1954 TV tribute to R&H, excellent photo and artwork galleries, and several short features explaining the Todd-AO phenomenon. It gets a little technical, but cinema buffs will appreciate it.

On the “State Fair” disc, film historian Richard Barrios and Tom Briggs, who co-wrote the Broadway musical version which would follow, provide the audio commentary on the 1945 film, but once again I preferred the small, more ephemeral items. I loved the small feature on “from page to screen to stage” and a TV pilot for “State Fair.”

The “Carousel” commentary by Jones and Redman is as good as the one on “Oklahoma!” but it’s the shorter extras that caught my attention on this volume. Jones appears on stills and audio in a deleted number, “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” while Cameron Mitchell sings in another deleted segment. I’m a sucker for old newsreel footage, and we get a Fox Movietone News clip on the “Carousel” New York and Hollywood openings. But I also liked seeing original Broadway stars Jan Clayton and John Raitt (Bonnie’s dad) performing “If I Loved You.” For comparison’s sake there’s the 1934 film “Liliom,” which is heavily dramatic and dark in composition as well as tone, and there are the usual trailers, art galleries, and sing-along option.

As with the other discs, there’s a commentary track for “South Pacific,” this time by Chapin again and musical theater writer Gerard Alessandrini. There’s a songs-only option too (as there is on “Carousel” and “The King and I”), in addition to the sing-along. Of most interest this time is the extended road show version of “South Pacific” with comments by Barrios, a short but very worthwhile making-of feature, excerpts featuring original Broadway stars Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, and a surprise interview with James Michener, whose “Tales of the South Pacific” inspired the musical. Diane Sawyer does a great job with the interview. But still, you’d think that if one disc would be dropped, it would be for arguably the weakest film in the collection, and not the strongest.

Barrios is joined on “The King and I” commentary by musical theater historian Michael Portantiere, and it’s possible to isolate the music score on another track. The commentary is solid, as with the others in this set, but once again I found myself surprised and delighted by the Criterion-style mix of odd bonus features. There’s the pilot for the TV version with commentary by star Samantha Eggar that gives a nice tie-in perspective, stage excerpts performed by Brynner and co-star Patricia Morison, stills and audio from a deleted song performed by Kerr and Marni Nixon, a Fox Movietone News clip of a charity premiere and featuring a Brynner Oscar clip, and six short featurettes that explore and explain both the facts behind the story and the stage-to-screen transformations.

“The Sound of Music” features two commentary tracks, one by Andrews, Plummer, and others, which, added to the one by director Robert Wise, makes them the two best tracks on this set. “There’s also “Your Favorite Things—an Interactive Celebration,” a Sing-Along, and “Music Machine.” It’s a shame that the other bonus features came up MIA.

Bottom Line:
Like anyone, Rodgers & Hammerstein had their hits and they had their misses. If you watch these films one after the other you start to realize that, if these guys were writing operas, their hits were mostly arias and their misses recitatives. There are some exceptions, but some of the clunkers end up being songs that don’t center on a character’s emotional state or moment and instead try to advance the plot through song. But overall, as you watch these films again in HD, you’re struck by how MANY hits these two had. And you wind up singing or humming those tunes as you go about your daily routines. Now that’s entertainment.

Reply