Broadway: The American Musical
by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon
published by Bulfinch Press
480 pages, 2004
Broadway: The American Musical DVD
PBS Home Video
Broadway: The American Musical CD
The Sounds (and the Sights) of Musicals
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
In case you hadn't noticed, Broadway is alive and well. There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that the American musical had fallen to the juggernaut of the British musical, but now that's all changed, and musical theater seems back in the hands of American composers and lyricists.
Of course, that's where it all started, way back when. And though it's taken decades to get where it is, in many ways it seems the musical is still in its infancy.
At least, that's how it seems if you immerse yourself in Broadway: The American Musical, a multimedia onslaught of products that celebrate the form, the craft and the people who bring us tunes we just can't get out of our collective head.
The centerpiece of this onslaught was a six-part series on PBS. Hosted by none other than Julie Andrews, the series presented Broadway in nice neat spoonfuls, tracing the history of this distinctly American art form from its earliest days in Vaudeville, all the way through to immensely popular musicals like The Producers and Wicked.
Virtually the day the series aired, it also became available on DVD, for those who just couldn't get enough (like me). The three-disc set presents an endless collection of invaluable photographs, performance snippets, recordings and more. It's nothing less than a treasure trove of history, trivia and cultural examination. The world, as it were, as seen from a seat in the center of the orchestra section.
Also included are complete interviews with the many talking heads consulted for the series. These include Stephen Sondheim, Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Hal Prince, along with theater historians, producers, directors and actors. The DVDs also include extra footage and behind-the-scenes gold like a closer look at the late Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, and an in-depth look at the development of Wicked.
As great as the DVD set is, what would a PBS series of this magnitude be without an accompanying book? Well, you need not ask. Though the series pulls its boundless energy from an endless series of clips and recordings, the glorious (if inevitable) book comes alive with an explosion of color and archival imagery. There are backstage shots, official performance shots and more.
The primary text is based on the narration of the series -- no surprise there -- but there's even more to enjoy. There's an added pleasure of being able to ingest all of this at your own pace. The series was six hours, but you'll likely spend much more time with this book over the years.
Of particular interest are the profiles and essays peppered throughout. Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Fred and Adele Astaire, the Marx Brothers, Ethel Waters, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Gwen Verdon, Phil Silvers, Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, Joel Grey, Zero Mostel, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald -- these are just a few of the people you'll read about.
You'll also devour insightful essays by Bert Williams, Sondheim (writing about Jerome Kern), Cantor (on Al Jolson), Lorenz Hart (on his one-time partner Richard Rodgers), George Gershwin, Walter Winchell, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Abe Burrows (on fellow Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser), Hal Prince, Michael Bennett (on his groundbreaking A Chorus Line), Tommy Tune, Graciela Daniele (on Bob Fosse), Cameron Mackintosh and Mel Brooks.
There are also more detailed looks at specific shows, songs and areas of the business of Broadway (such as Tin Pan Alley, radio, cast albums, Hollywood and TV).
The essays cover shows like the Follies of 1919; No, No, Nanette; the revolutionary Cradle Will Rock; 1776 and Sondheim's gorgeous Sunday in the Park with George. Songs covered include "Bill," "Fascinatin' Rhythm," "Manhattan," "Ol' Man River," "You're the Top," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "Rose's Turn," "Broadway Baby" and "I Am What I Am."
Want more? No problem. Two record labels known for quality cast recordings have partnered to bring you two configurations of music from the series. One, from Columbia Records, is a five-CD set that offers 106 songs from every period of Broadway history, from Al Jolson's "Swanee" from Sinbad in 1920 through Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth's "Defying Gravity" from Wicked in 2003. In between, there's an absolute cornucopia of treasures, including Fanny Brice singing "My Man," Gertrude Lawrence singing "Someone To Watch Over Me," Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River," Ethel Waters singing "Heat Wave," Ethel Merman singing "You're the Top," John Raitt and Jan Clayton singing "If I Loved You," Robert Alda singing "Luck Be a Lady," Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence singing "Tonight," Richard Burton singing "Camelot" and on and on. There are songs by every major composer and composing team there ever was, from Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Andrew Lloyd Webber to Mel Brooks to Stephen Schwartz. Notably, unlike some other similarly-themed collections, all the recordings here are original cast performances; there are no in-studio recreations.
There's also a best-of CD from Decca Records, with 21 of the very best tracks.
A true multimedia showcase, Broadway: The American Musical is an event. There's simply so much material to be enjoyed and studied that to contain it all in a series or a book or on CD would have been impossible.
In the end, I wish I could recommend a single product to you. But the fact is, if musical theater is your thing, no single one will be enough: You're gonna have to bite the bullet and get 'em all. | November 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.
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