Since the pandemic lockdown, theaters have upped their exploration of streaming options, realizing there are audiences to be had beyond in-house seating. At their best, these video captures are more than just, “Well, I can’t be there live so I’ll have to settle for this” compromises. Instead, they can be terrifically satisfying as films. Yes, films. Shot-from-the-stage films of theater productions — and, sometimes, the issues they raise — will be the focus of the recurring feature Screen Plays. And now, on with the show!
One of the first books about a movie director I ever read was a paperback about Robert Altman; if memory serves, it only went up to 3 Women or A Wedding. I wrote a freshman honors term paper about him. And I was well aware of his forays into theater and theater-to-film adaptations in the 1980s.
What I seem to have missed is that the director of my favorite film (Nashville) also directed a made-for-Japanese-pay-per-view film of the Broadway musical Black and Blue.
At least I can take solace in the fact that I’m not alone. The obsessive Wikipedia contributors who included his 1960 TV episode of The Gale Storm Show and his Bobby Troup music video also somehow missed it in his Wikipedia filmography.
Thankfully, along came Kanopy to the rescue.
The free streaming service — accessible with your library card — has a wide variety of offerings, including some that fit nicely into this column. I’ve visited Kanopy recently to stream Simon Callow’s one-man show Being Shakespeare (yes!) and a while back caught the Julie Taymor stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (err …). And I look forward to diving into more.
The Altman film, though, was a surprise.
Running from 1989 to early 1991, Black and Blue was a revue focused on tap dance and song anchored in the time between the world wars. It helped bring blues great Ruth Brown to wider prominence and the cast recording won a Grammy. But without a narrative and requiring extraordinary talent from a large cast, it’s not the kind of show that gets revived in regionals.
I remember seeing the marquee and ads when in New York around that period but I tend to bypass book-less shows; Into the Woods, then simultaneously running, was more my speed.
Seeing it now, though, makes clear what I was missing.
Yes, it’s great to hear Brown and her fellow divas, Linda Hopkins and Carrie Smith, offering personality-packed performances of such songs as “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sitting on It” and “T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” But the chance to see an older generation of tap-dancing greats, including Bunny Briggs, sharing the stage with up-and-comers in top form proves both joyful and emotional.
Black and Blue on Broadway is mostly shot directly from the stage — with a few from-the-wings angles thrown in. Some of Altman’s side views of the stage are a little distracting and unnecessary, but there’s a lovely moment after the curtain call when some cast members head for their dressing rooms while others are compelled to keep dancing even when the curtain is down.
Altman also wisely allows the camera to sometimes isolate the legs and feet of the dancers, allowing us to marvel at the intricate rhythms and athleticism without ever losing focus on the bigger stage picture.
The overall film isn’t as slick as some more recent stage adaptations; Altman clearly didn’t have the luxury of shooting it the way Hamilton or Come From Away were captured. But the director wisely let Black and Blue speak, and sing, for itself. In the process, he not only documented and preserved the work of vital artists, he also made a damn entertaining film.
Now I wish I had picked up a ticket when I could have.