The shows go on in `Broadway'

Series looks back at history, significance of NYC theater


October 19, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You can have great successes that go around the world, but in the musical theater, that hit needs to also be a hit on Broadway." It's indicative of the strength of the Broadway brand that these are the words of a British producer, who also happens to be one of the most successful musical theater producers of all time.

Cameron Mackintosh makes this statement in Broadway: The American Musical, the monumental six-part PBS series that airs at 9 p.m. today through Thursday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

A decade in the making by producer/director Michael Kantor, Broadway spans more than a century and is laden with documentary footage and music, as well as dozens of interviews with performers ranging from Ziegfeld showgirls to Harvey Fierstein, songwriters from Mel Brooks to Stephen Sondheim, directors from Harold Prince to Julie Taymor, not to mention critics, writers and historians.

What Kantor sets out to prove is twofold: 1) that the Broadway musical is a distinctly American form and 2) that musicals are a barometer of changing times in this country. He succeeds on both counts. (Only when you're well into the series do you realize that it lacks the type of overriding viewpoint common to the work of another PBS filmmaker, Ken Burns.)

Most historians claim that the Broadway musical began with an 1866 melodrama called The Black Crook (a fact that is briefly acknowledged in the lavish coffee table book by Kantor and Laurence Maslon that was published in conjunction with the documentary). The TV series, however, begins with the ascendancy of showman Florenz Ziegfeld.

Although the Ziegfeld Follies were frothy entertainment, in 1927 Ziegfeld played a revolutionary role in the advancement of the genre when he produced Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's Show Boat, the first musical to combine songs with a strong story and serious themes. Ziegfeld called it "the opportunity of my life."

The series' second episode (two parts are broadcast each night) goes from the Jazz Age to the Depression. The pre-Depression years were a boom time for Broadway. In 1927 alone, eight theaters were built and more than 50 musicals opened. Social changes that were reflected on stage included seeing women as liberated flappers and African-Americans as artists who moved beyond blackface to create and star in their own influential musicals.

The next major landmark comes in 1935 when George and Ira Gershwin collaborated with DuBose Heyward on Porgy and Bess. "There's Porgy, and then I think there's everything else," Sondheim says of his favorite musical. The third episode also includes documentary interviews with Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, who created the roles of Porgy and Bess.

By the time Oklahoma! is introduced, in part four, the series has made a solid case for the forebears that laid the foundation for Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 musical, which is often described as the first to fully integrate book and music.

Further evidence of the way one show feeds another comes in part five when critic Frank Rich explains that in West Side Story (1957), choreographer Jerome Robbins applied the type of dream ballet that Agnes de Mille created in Oklahoma! to an entire musical.

In the wake of West Side Story come a bevy of what are now recognized as classic American musicals - shows like Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof. Then Sondheim teams with director Hal Prince and the Broadway musical is redefined again. Out of this partnership emerge cutting-edge shows that defy traditional notions of plot and dare to replace happy endings with ambiguity.

By the last episode, the series - which is narrated by Julie Andrews - has, in a sense, come full circle. We're back in Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam Theatre, which has been restored by Disney and has reopened with The Lion King.

Yet it's Disney's Michael Eisner who points out that even the highest TV ratings feel "empty" compared to the effect of "1,832 people at this theater going crazy."

And in the final analysis, that's the main thing missing from Broadway: The American Musical. No TV show can re-create the excitement of live performance.

At the same time, the series reminds us that, once upon a time, Broadway musicals were regularly showcased on TV variety shows, and Broadway songs were mainstays of the radio hit parade. Today, Broadway: The American Musical may be as close as we get to those glory days. And perhaps most importantly, the series reminds us of the role this innate art form has played - and continues to play - in American cultural life.


What: Broadway: The American Musical

When: 9-11 tonight-Thursday

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: Monumental six-part documentary survey of the Broadway musical.

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