Broadway: The American Musical


A million lights they flicker there.
A million hearts beat quicker there.
No skies of gray on the Great White Way.
That’s the Broadway Melody.
The Broadway Melody of 1929

There was a time when the Broadway musical dominated popular culture. It formed the basis for many of the earliest television variety programs. Original cast albums littered the Billboard charts, as well as radio airwaves. The movie industry plundered Broadway’s talents to craft their own song and dance fantasies. But in 2004, this purely American invention has mostly fallen out of the public consciousness. Chicago (2002) aside, most people probably couldn’t name a single modern show. Others would merely spew the name of some artifact from the ’80s (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) and feel smart.

But for almost 70 years, the Great White Way set the standard for excellence in entertainment. Broadway’s musicals also set up social change, both in and out of the theater. From the integration — albeit begrudgingly — of black performers and composers during the Jazz Age of the ’20s to the atypical, topical rock operas of the late ’60s, Broadway responded to cultural circumstance and public perception with surprising strength and invention. As with independent cinema in the ’70s, there were maverick producers, directors, and writers taking the “situation show” — as the legendary Irving Berlin called the genre — to new heights.

With such accolades and significance, what finally undid the musical’s influence? According to the brilliant PBS documentary, Broadway: The American Musical, new to DVD, with over three hours of extended interviews and rare performances, it was productions transplanted from London’s West End. These overwhelming spectacles, filled with mundane music and mind-blowing effects, sounded the death knell for the traditional song and dance shows. These shows catered to a new, tourist-heavy clientele who, according to the series, demanded simple, straightforward “entertainment.” In combination with Disney, who came to Broadway in 1994 with an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, and Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s homogenization of 42nd Street into a more “family-friendly” environment, the longstanding progressive elements of the musical were abandoned for star vehicles and guaranteed grosses.

Back in the day, though, Broadway was a veritable melting pot where hundreds of theatrical and cultural archetypes could mingle and intermarry. Borrowing from vaudeville, the minstrel show, the song-studded revue, and the light operatic traditions of Europe, while tapping deep into a burgeoning immigrant and minority talent pool, early musicals had more in common with television variety shows of the ’50s and ’60s than they did with The Sound of Music or Cats.

It would take the efforts of dozens of songwriting savants, individuals with mythological names like George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Jerome Kern, to transform this mélange into a meaningful expression of “American experience.” Indeed, the final two names listed were responsible for what many consider to be the groundbreaking moment in musical theater — 1927’s Show Boat. In this show, Kern and Hammerstein basically invented the book-based musical, a milestone that would not be trumped until 16 years later, when Oklahoma!, with its seamless incorporation of story, song, lyrics, dialogue, and dancing, would become the primary model for musicals to follow.

There was a great deal more to the genre’s formation than a couple of creative apexes, and this is the story that Broadway wants to tell. Shaped according to Ken Burns’ familiar style — voice-overs mixed with interviews, the segments functioning as stand-alone episodes as well as forming a massive whole — the series is comprised of six parts, each narrated by the indomitable Julie Andrews. Together, they cover over 111 years of theater history. The DVD includes extra footage cut from the television version, including, importantly, vaudeville performances from the Library of Congress Variety Stage collection and Bill Robinson’s performance from 1932’s Harlem is Heaven.

It is remarkable to see the simultaneous reliance on and resistance to black actors and actresses in this history, a saga best illustrated by the life and times of Bert Williams. As part of “Episode 1: Give My Regards to Broadway,” he’s credited as one of the first African American musical comedy stars who played by his own rules. He refused to work in blackface (the norm at the time) and used his shiftless, mannered character — “Mr. Nobody” — to achieve amazing “crossover” appeal. Interviewees point out how Williams used such an obvious, offensive stereotype to challenge intolerance and bigotry. It was heady stuff for the early 1900s.

In “Episode 2: Syncopated City,” we learn how famed composer Eubie Blake, along with partner and lyricist Noble Sissle, created the first all-African American musical, Shufflin’ Along. It started a boom of ragtime-inspired shows and songs, and made George Gershwin rethink his approach to writing, thereby setting the tone for Broadway until the great Depression. These influential but forgotten founding fathers brought the Jazz Age to musical theater.

When Broadway: The American Musical focuses on these unsung icons, and others like Fanny Brice (quite different from Barbra Streisand’s incarnation in Funny Girl [1968]), Marilyn Miller, or the amazing Ethel Waters (her segment, from “Episode 3: I Got Plenty O’ Nutin’,” is a standout), it is absolutely amazing. It fills in the blanks for fans who thought they knew everything about the boulevard of broken dreams, while introducing the novice to the complexities of the genre.

True, by the time we get to the big names of Broadway — Rodgers and Hammerstein, who own “Episode 4: Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and Stephen Sondheim, whose genius is the focus of “Episode 5: Tradition” — Broadway has lost some of its capacity to surprise. While it is still eminently watchable and engaging, it also feeds us too much information about familiar fodder like My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Hair. By the time we travel through the post-’70s rebirth proffered by producer Cameron McIntosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Episode 6: Putting it Together”), the series has become a little scattershot and rushed, relying on the fame of the names it drops (Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Disney’s The Lion King) to keep the audience connected.

Part of the problem with Broadway: The American Musical is its use of the Burns-inspired vignette. This renders every aspect of the epic story, from the landmarks of 2002’s Hairspray to 1970’s Company, equal significance to the history. Certainly, Sondheim warrants several sections, but wouldn’t it have been better to address his radical rethinking of the musical in one piece, from his collaboration with Bernstein forward? Then there is A Chorus Line, one of the most important shows in the history of Broadway. For the first time, a musical was crafted out of the real-life stories of those behind the scenes. Yet, sadly, it gets the same seven-minute treatment as the untried Wicked from 2004.

Thankfully, PBS understands that some of the more important moments are given short shrift, so the DVD expands on the film, including additional context. Between the three discs, there are 69 additional interview clips, many addressing otherwise underdeveloped subjects. In addition to the footage of early vaudeville routines, we are given some of the genre’s more memorable songs (“If I Loved You” from Carousel, “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures) in their entirety (they are presented in an edited form in the television version).

There remain MIAs in Broadway: The American Musical. For instance, the series ignores the famous flops. From the hack horrors of Carrie: The Musical to the failure of the Annie sequel, the notorious nose-dives taken by some of the most important and influential figures in the theater are more or less swept under the rug. And speaking of the little red-headed orphan, her success the first time around is nowhere to be found in Broadway. Neither are crowd-pleasers like Oliver!, The Music Man or Evita.

Even if it sometimes fails to give powerful figures their full due, Broadway: The American Musical offers an outstanding overview of a decidedly American art form. Though it is also famous for its plays, one-man/woman performances, and rich revivals, Broadway will always be considered, first and foremost, the home of musical comedy. This wonderful documentary provides a primer on its origins and developments. It is more than enough reason to give your regards, and your attention, to the grandeur that is the Great White Way.