THE BOOTLEG FILES: “APPLAUSE”

BOOTLEG FILES 209: “Applause” (1973 TV version of the hit Broadway musical).

LAST SEEN: It has not been seen since its original broadcast.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance rights are probably keeping this production out of circulation.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is actually surprising that it is taking so long for this to receive a commercial DVD release.

“Applause” is one of those titles that gained a semi-legendary status simply because it has not been publicly seen in many years. And by many years, I mean since it was first broadcast on CBS on March 19, 1973.

The semi-legendary status associated with “Applause” is actually pegged to the source material – it is a Broadway musical adaptation of the classic film “All About Eve” – and the talent associated with it: a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, and a starring performance by Lauren Bacall.

After a hunt for some time, I was able to track down a bootleg DVD of “Applause” (thank you, eBay!). I was hoping it would be a fine quality bootleg and not the crummy bootleg with the annoying on-screen time code that has been circulating for years. Well, it was the crummy bootleg – that’s all that appears to be out there. But I shouldn’t be harsh on the bootleg – it seems the time code was actually the only interesting thing to watch on the DVD.

“Applause” (at least its made-for-TV incarnation) is awful. Even if one didn’t know anything regarding “All About Eve,” it wouldn’t hold up on its own. Everything about this offering is so misguided that it is impossible to approach the production as anything but camp. And even then, it is pretty weak camp.

“Applause” keeps the basic structure of “All About Eve,” but updates the story from a dramatic Broadway setting in 1950 to a 1970s Broadway musical environment. In keeping with the times, the show has references to pot smoking, Jane Fonda, television and Vietnam (but not to a pot smoking Jane Fonda on television in Vietnam).

The show also brings in a decidedly queer angle when Margo, inexplicably, ignores her opening night party and joins her somewhat effeminate assistant at his favorite Greenwich Village bar. The bar is only packed with men (including one in leather bike gear) who instantly recognize the glamorous star and start to dance with her. Although no one says the words “gay” or “homosexual” in the show, it is somewhat obvious that the setting is not the New York chapter of Focus on the Family.

Lauren Bacall inherits Bette Davis’ signature role of Margo Channing – but, honestly, she’s not playing Margo Channing. She’s playing Lauren Bacall, or at least a bad facsimile. At one point, Bacall’s character mocks her early career standing as a young movie queen. This turns Margo Channing into a has-been Hollywood exile, rather than keeping her in the Davis version as a perennial (and seemingly immortal) theater legend that loathed Hollywood. This makes little sense.

But since this is a musical, Bacall is expected to sing and dance. Well, her dancing is strictly okay – mostly arm waving and hip shaking, as if she is trying to rise into flight. But her singing is not something that goes well on the ears. Her husky voice betrays a chronic inability to emphasize lyrics that spell ironic or bemused observations; forget about the basic niceties of pitch and tone. Indeed, Bacall joins Rosalind Russell from “Gypsy” and Lucille Ball from “Mame” as the Hollywood goddesses who should never have been allowed to belt out a tune. (Larry Hagman, who plays Bacall’s lover in this production, was fortunate to have his singing dubbed.)

But at least “Gyspy” and “Mame” had decent scores. The songs in “Applause” are so mediocre that it is hard to fathom the show actually won the Tony Award for Best Musical. None of the tunes are even vaguely memorable; I’ll be damned if I can sing one stanza after watching the show. The most egregious number is the title tune, sung by a bar full of “gypsies” (Broadway dancers and supporting performers) who crudely mimic the lyrics and choreography of other (and better) shows. At one point, three male gypsies start disrobing while chanting “Oh, Calcutta! ” Oh, no!

“Applause” also lacks the acidic wit and intellectual vigor of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film screenplay. The show incorporates the screenplay’s most famous line – “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” – into a song where the line is repeated ad nauseam while extras dance a variation of the funky chicken. Beyond that, the classic putdowns and slicing commentary of the Mankiewicz original are nowhere to be found in this pile of insincere and forgettable verbiage that bears no resemblance to the classic Comden and Green style of writing.

That, of course, is just the show. The actual made-for-television production (which was shot in a London studio) looks cheap and flimsy. Considering the show takes place among Broadway’s elite, the set design and costuming is uncommonly tacky. (Yeah, it was the 1970s, but still…)

Oddly enough, “Applause” won applause when it was shown. The production received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Single Program – Variety and Popular Music (it lost to “Liza with a Z, which was the only other title in that category) and Bacall received a Best Actress Emmy nod (she lost to Cloris Leachman in “A Brand New Life”).

However, “Applause” has not been seen since its broadcast. I am assuming that music clearance issues need to be ironed out before any commercial DVD release can take place. The show will also probably require expensive and time-consuming digital remastering from its original 1973 video format. Universal TV produced the show for broadcast on CBS, but I don’t know who currently owns the rights.

Even if “Applause” were to somehow find its way into DVD release, today’s audiences (except for die-hard fans of Broadway musicals) will probably be bored by what it has to offer. And considering that “All About Eve” is still available for viewing, why settle for a cheap knockoff when you can savor the original beauty?

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 30, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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