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Our review of Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-ray), published December 25th, 2012, is also available.
"You're going out there a nobody, and you're coming back…A STAR!"—Mel Brooks says it, but every person on Broadway thinks it
After their groundbreaking miniseries Jazz, PBS was looking for another documentary topic that would capture a slice of American imagination and history. Logically, they settled on the "The Great White Way" of Broadway. For over one hundred years, New York City's Broadway has been the epicenter of dramatic and musical theatre in America. Its history reflects America's shifts in politics and culture in every era, and its tale is a rich story that very specifically addresses the American dream. Given the right amount of pluck and luck, you could be big, baby! (And if you're really lucky, one day you'll be a talking head in a PBS documentary.) So if names like Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Fanny Brice, or Leonard Bernstein get your toes tapping, this is for you.
Facts of the Case
Broadway-The American Musical is a six-hour miniseries that begins with Florenz Ziegfield and his fantastical Follies, and takes the viewer all the way up to 2004, when a wicked witch soars to new heights and box office records. It is an immense story that traces pathos and cultural wars every step of the way. The musical is popular entertainment that predates radio, television, and film. Its history is serpentine and dense, and Broadway—The American Musical touches on just about everything without really going into great depths about anything. It takes the usual documentary approach, combining Julie Andrews's (The Sound of Music) narration with footage of the shows (when available) and talking-head interviews. The miniseries is divided into hour-long episodes, each of which covers a specific era. It's presented in a straightforward chronological order for the most part, and finds events and shows that tie together to tell the story of Broadway.
Let me be the first in this discussion to shockingly declare, "I don't like showtunes!" I find them irritating, and usually saccharine, simple singsong silliness. Yet out of all the judges on the DVD Verdict site I wager I have been in the most musicals (or at least one who will admit it). I'm a huge fan of the theatre, and quite often have found myself waiting for the curtain to go up while thinking "Please, let me be able to sing and dance for two and a half hours and have people actually clap at the end." I was shocked at how many of the musicals featured here are actually ones I've seen or been in. And dammit, I knew most all the songs by heart, too. Broadway—The American Musical hits the high notes of the most popular shows, and never reveals the obscurer shows or any misfires. It's an entertaining, engrossing six hours jam-packed with marvelous tidbits and stories.
I found the whole thing very moving. The documentary interviews people who were there, and they have some incredible stories. Some are funny, and some are downright sad. They all have an aura of triumph, either artistically or financially, that always springs eternal hope in the vitality and importance of the musical. Broadway has provided the voice and vehicle for so many stars, and you will be amazed as you watch movie legends in early theatrical performances. The first episode even opens with Hugh Jackman (X-Men) crowing "Oh what a beautiful morning!" from Oklahoma.
Broadway—The American Musical is a large, lovely Valentine to New York and the arts. It becomes a thumbnail sketch of a uniquely American artform. Broadway has always been a mix of high and low art, where vaudeville comedy conventions met operatic scores. It's sexy and glamorous at times, and heartbreaking and moving as well. There are so many stories to tell—and that's the real challenge to making a chronicle of the musical. They try their best to give you a handle on each decade, and how the shows changed and influenced popular culture. In most cases you find Broadway shows were a reflection of the times in which they were produced. Oklahoma was a jingoistic folk opera to remind the troops of World War Two what they were fighting for; Hair was a counterculture response protesting Vietnam and glorifying the hippie lifestyle. I found it ironic that in the earliest days ethnic figures represented their communities through song and dance, and today the hottest show on Broadway is conceived by an old Yiddish comic with a flair for the absurd—Mel Brooks (The Producers). As much as things have changed, they have remained the same in many ways as well.
Inside a pretty nice slipcase are three DVDs, each holding two episodes and some extras. The image is letterboxed and anamorphically enhanced, so most of the visuals are presented as well as they can be. The problem (as with so many documentaries) is the series relies on old stock footage, and almost anything else that's available to them. Most Broadway shows were never filmed professionally, so the footage comes from disparate sources such as Hollywood adaptations, variety show appearances, home movies, and photographs. The producers of the show have labeled each clip, so there's no confusion as to what you are seeing. Lots of grain and artifacts pop up, as expected. The sound mix is an appropriate two-channel stereo; it gets the job done nicely. Extras are the real reason to own the set—the selection of unedited performances and interviews clocks in at over three hours of supplements. That's where you will find the real meat if you are a Broadway fanatic. The interviews go into much greater depths about specific shows, and you get unedited responses from an army of Broadway veterans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The real rub is that Broadway—An American Musical seems unsure of just who its audience truly is. Fanatics and anyone who has studied theatre will find the series skimming the surface of a vast story. Each show they choose to spotlight seems to get about five minutes of discussion, when truly each could merit at least an hour. Any fans of the form will be shocked at the notable exceptions that are not even discussed at all. So the show would be best suited for people who do not know much about Broadway and theatre—but how will you ever cajole them into sitting down for six hours of people singing and dancing and reminiscing? The scholar will deride it for not being deep enough, and the casual fan will find themselves sitting through six hours of Broadway lore.
Broadway: The American Musical is too brief for the pundit and tortuously long for the neophyte. There is one really crass extra on the production of Wicked, which comes across as little more than a commercial for people to buy tickets. But when you consider the depth of the extras, it's a small concession to an otherwise stunning treasure trove of interviews with Broadway legends.
Broadway—The American Musical is a stunning tribute to the old song-and-dance routine that has become so distinctly part of the American landscape. There is a power to Broadway that is immeasurable. You may go to the movies every week, but I dare you to go to one Broadway show and ever forget which one was your first, or what happened that night. Cameron McIntosh produced Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and many other hits in the last twenty years. Four of his shows have grossed more than all the Star Wars movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, the Jurassic Park trilogy, and Titanic combined. The charm of the theatre is that it is live, and anything can happen. Broadway has survived the Great Depression, 9/11, and many storms. It will always be a symbol of the American dream, where a chorus girl can kick and claw her way to fame and fortune. Broadway—The American Musical paints a portrait of an art that is as large and iconic as America itself.
Stirring and vast, it's another great miniseries from PBS. Wonderful stuff for anyone with a dream and a killer kick turn. Broadway—The American Musical is free to go as one of the great examples of what DVD can achieve with a solid documentary. "There's no business like show business!"
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