by Ellis Nassour

    One hundred years of Broadway milestones and musicals will flash to life on the PBS-TV series Broadway: The American Musical. It brings alive the epic story of musical theater and its inextricable link to 20th-century American life through portraits of the creators and collaborators who toiled on and off stage to define and develop theater -- especially along "The Great White Way," in and around it's centerpiece Times Square, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

    Julie Andrews, public television's unofficial "ambassador for the Broadway musical," is the series host. Others appearing on the six-part series, broadcast in two-hour segments over three nights, are Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Betty Comden, Joel Grey, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim and, among many others, Tommy Tune. The series includes an extraordinary collection of rare archival footage, home movies and tracks from Original Cast Recordings.

JULIE ANDREWS is series host/narrator:

No one person created Broadway or the musical. They evolved over time from extraordinarily talented and innovative minds. The best of shows incorporated the variety of influences and elements that shaped our lives at the time.

The series -- the first comprehensive documentary on the history of the American musical created for television -- follows the evolution of the Broadway musical all the way from the late 1800s to the period of mega blockbusters and discusses the financial risks involved in staging them in the face of competition from cable, video games and DVD.

When Florenz Ziegfeld arrived New York in 1893 to find acts for the Chicago World's Fair, the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street was no one's idea of "the crossroads of the world." In fact, there were no theatres North of that now-famous intersection. But, in the famed tradition of if you build it, they will come, he found the formula: music, spectacle and sex appeal. By 1913, his Ziegfeld Follies had become an amalgamation of everything that was happening not only in New York, but also in America. And though his spectacles focused on beautiful girls clad as scantily as was permitted in that era, the genus for the Follies was actually built on a hot hunk who, too, wore as little as possible and whose muscled physique had women swooning.

In addition to introducing such stars as comics Weber and Fields, Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields, Ziegfeld integrated Broadway long before it was socially fashionable by introducing Bert Williams.

Peppered throughout Broadway: The American Musical are such historical and/or exciting moments, as Follies star and comedienne Fanny Brice's heart-grabbing performance of "My Man"; George Gershwin's visit to Folly Island, SC, where he began to compose his legendary score for Porgy and Bess; the decline of operetta and revues and the introduction of book shows that touched on relevant social and historical issues, such as the landmark productions of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

Then there is Ethel Merman's brassy blues rendition of the Gershwins' "I've Got Rhythm" from 1930s Girl Crazy; the new partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that changed the face of Broadway forever; groundbreaking musicals such as West Side Story, Company, Hair and Gypsy; the popularity of political satire; the British invasion; Julie Taymor's visionary staging of The Lion King; all the way forward to The Producers and a behind-the-scenes look at Wicked's opening night.

Ethel Merman in a scene from Anything Goes, 1934

The series traverses such national events as the advent of recorded sound, the rise of Hollywood, the Great Depression, both World Wars, labor relations, the introduction of television, the civil rights struggle, the sexual revolution and the impact of AIDS.

In fact, no stone is left unturned. The series touches on race relations and black musicals; how homosexual artists created the most enduring models of heterosexual romance; and how artists have managed to survive -- for instance, in the Great Depression, instead of jumping out windows, they wrote shows and songs about it.

"There's no place in the world like Broadway," says series producer/director Michael Kantor. "It's where the American dream is realized eight times a week, and by and large it continues to embody the optimistic heartbeat of American culture. Each episode demonstrates how America's ever-changing cultural landscape is reflected from the Broadway stage."

He says that Broadway: The American Musical tells two stories: the 100-year history of musical theater and the story of its relationship to 20th-century American life. Kantor's chronological approach begins with the immigrant experience at the turn of the century, when a melting pot of voices and styles gave rise to a popular new form of entertainment. It concludes with this season's hottest, big-budget productions and revivals.

Episode One culminates with Ziegfeld's 1927 precedent-setting production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's masterpiece, Show Boat. "The history of the American musical theater is divided quite simply into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat," says writer Miles Kreuger.

Among the key figures featured are Russian Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin, who became the King of Tin Pan Alley and seemed to have his pulse on everything American; the brash Irish-American George M. Cohan, whose song-and-dance routines embodied the energy of America; notorious "Abominable Showman" David Merrick; and, of course, as the series reaches musical theater in the latter part of the 20th Century, Sondheim, Herman and the impact of Lloyd Webber.

Mary Martin washes that man right out of her hair in South Pacific, 1949
[ Rodgers and Hammerstein Org. ]
Kantor explains he wanted to hear in their own words from the key figures who had a role in shaping the course of Broadway as American culture. Over nine years, and from many sources, you hear from "Ziegfeld Girl" Dana O'Connell, artist Al Hirschfeld, Gershwin sister Frances Gershwin Godowsky and writers, lyricists, producers, performers, directors -- and critics.

Broadway: The American Musical took a lot of "producing": Ghost Light Films, Thirteen/WNET New York, NHK and the BBC in association with Carlton International.

And funding: Capital One, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Humanities, Dorothy and Lewis Cullman, Shubert Organization, LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, National Endowment for the Arts and, among countless others, Viewers Like You.

Broadway: The American Musical will not just be on TV: Bulfinch Press has a lavishly illustrated companion book, co-authored by Kantor and NYU professor and theater historian Laurence Maslon. In addition, there's Paramount home video and DVD. Columbia Masterworks has issued a five-CD box set of the music with lavish print materials and Decca Broadway has released a single highlights disc.

For fascinating timeline essays from the book, photos, video clips, synopses of the featured musicals, the "Broadway Trivia Game" and much, much, much more, visit: pbs.org/broadway.

Stay tuned for the EPISODE GUIDE to follow . . .


Sometimes backstage stories are just as compelling as the shows themselves. Following are a few of the personal recollections offered by theater legends in interviews on the series:

Julie Andrews, host/narrator for the series: "When I was 19, I auditioned for Richard Rodgers. I belted out my aria as loud as I could... Mr. Rodgers came onstage and said, 'That was absolutely adequate.' And I went, 'Uh, oh, really.' And then he cracked up and said, 'No, it was wonderful'..."

Agnes De Mille, choreographer of and on seeing Oklahoma!: "I remember so well the triple row of [servicemen's] uniforms in the back. The men watching this folksy show...with the tears streaming down their cheeks because it symbolized home and what they were going to die for."

Bob Fosse: "I suppose if you repeat something enough times it's called 'a style.' I started with the hats because I began losing my hair very early. I've always been slightly round-shouldered, so I started to exaggerate that. And I don't have what the ballet dancers call a turnout, so I started turning my feet in, and I guess that's the 'style' they talk about."

Al Hirschfeld on Broadway': "I've been hearing about Broadway disappearing ever since I put on long pants. I mean, it's been the fabulous invalid. But it survives, it survives..."

James Lapine on Sunday in the Park with George: "The workshop was just like watching a painting come together...dot by dot, and as each song came in, as each lyric came in, the picture became more focused and the storytelling clear... It literally didn't come together 'til a day or two before the critics arrived."

Arthur Laurents, on directing La Cage aux Folles: "In the beginning, when all these guys in drag came out onstage, the men who had been dragged to see it by their wives covered their faces. At the end of the show, they were standing up and cheering [these] two men dancing off into the sunset. I thought that was quite an accomplishment."

Galt MacDermot, composer: "I'd never seen a Broadway musical when I wrote Hair... People still come up to me and say that it changed their life..."

Jerry Mitchell, choreographer/director, on seeing A Chorus Line: "I was in the last row of the last balcony... I went back to my teacher and said, 'You've got to teach me...the opening combination.' Two years later I audition, I got the show and went on tour with it. And when I went on the first time, I was doing the opening combination and I remember thinking to myself, 'I wonder who's in the back row.'"

Patricia Morison on Kiss Me, Kate: "Broadway was always breaking barriers. My first line in Kiss Me, Kate was, 'You bastard,' and when I finally said it, in the theater, the gasp from the audience was incredible - 'Oh, no!' It's slightly different nowadays, isn't it?"

Dana O'Connell, former Ziegfeld showgirl: "The showgirls carried those beautiful costumes, and they had to learn a certain walk in order to balance the hats, 'the Ziegfeld Walk'... I felt marvelous... Ziegfeld just captured a certain something."

Jerome Robbins on On the Town: "We were all novices. We really were. We didn't know a g-damn thing about doing a show."

Stephen Sondheim on Oscar Hammerstein: "He was a surrogate father to me from the age of 11 to 15. Oscar saw in me somebody he could pass knowledge onto... My major memory of my teens is when Oscar took me to New Haven to see the first night of Carousel. I was so moved at the end of the first act that I cried into Dorothy Hammerstein's fur..."

Ben Vereen on Hair: "Every singer, dancer, hippie, panther, you name it, we were all on line waiting to audition for the show. And we went into a series of rehearsals like I'd never seen before... [Thanks to director Tom O'Horgan] we did a lot of exercises dealing with caring for one another, loving one another, in order to be loving to the audience."



Saturday, October 16, 2004 at 1:00 AM | Item Link

Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.