The new innovative musical on Broadway starting this era was "West Side Story", the first musical to integrate dance movement into the everyday movement of the characters. The movement was matched by ...
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Broadway was dominated by two names: George M. Cohan and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.. Cohan wrote and starred in his own shows. Ziegfeld pioneered the revue show, ...
Engaging, humorous, and provocative, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy examines the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical. The film ... See full summary »
Mary Ellen Barrett,
This six part documentary miniseries presents the evolution of the Broadway musical from its inception in 1893 to current day 2004. It presents those influential players both on stage and behind the scenes, as well as a variety of influential Broadway shows, a handful which are known to have transformed the musical into what the audience knows it to be today. The Broadway musical was often a reflection of what was happening in the world, but almost as often was meant to be an escape from problems of the world. Specific world events had a profound influence on the overall tone of Broadway shows, some of these events being wars (especially the world wars), Prohibition, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and 9/11. Broadway musicals were also affected by the onset on various new media, such as talking movies and television. They in turn influenced other popular culture, especially what was known as the popular music of the day, especially up until the 1960s. Broadway musicals ...Written by
The unidentified two-strip Technicolor sequences used to illustrate "The Ziegfeld Follies" were lifted out of Glorifying the American Girl (1929). The star of this film, also unidentified although frequently shown in the clips, was 'Mary Eaton', sister of interviewee Doris Eaton. See more »
A two-strip technicolor clip of Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald from The Vagabond King (q.v.) is used to illustrate the pre-Ziegfeld shows seen on Broadway before the turn of the century. The Vagabond King was not performed on Broadway until 1925, and the film was made four years later (1929) and released in 1930. See more »
'Broadway: The American Musical' is a six-part series that's just what it claims to be: a documentary history of the American musical (although it doesn't start anywhere near the beginning: 'The Black Crook' in the 1860s). The basic structure is chronological, though there are a few odd deviations: 'Bye Bye Birdie' comes before 'My Fair Lady', 'The Pyjama Game' doesn't show up until the 1980s, and flamboyant showman David Merrick isn't mentioned until the 1990s.
Of course, the real fun of a show like this is the chance to see rare clips of performers and obscure shows. Necessarily, documentarian Michael Kantor is limited by the fact that most stage performances were not preserved. We see silent-film footage of Bert Williams while the soundtrack plays one of his gramophone recordings; the image and soundtrack don't match, because Williams never made a talking movie. Yet, within the available material, Kantor makes some bizarre choices. We see silent footage (taken with a home-movie camera) of George M Cohan singing and dancing on Broadway in 'I'd Rather Be Right'. After a brief tantalising glimpse of this rare footage, Kantor cuts to a long excerpt of James Cagney in the movie 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', which we can get at any video shop. We see a brief clip of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson doing his famous stair dance ... but after a few delightful seconds, the documentary cuts to footage of a generic jazz band. We see clips from a couple of MGM movie musicals (not film versions of stage musicals) containing songs ABOUT Broadway.
I was delighted by one clever sequence: an audio recording of Fred and Adele Astaire singing 'Fascinating Rhythm' is played over animated cut-outs of the dancing Astaire siblings. Also delightful is new footage of former Ziegfeld chorus girl Doris Eaton, singing and dancing one of her old songs from memory, shortly before her 100th birthday! We also see rare kinescope footage of some major Broadway musical performances: Gertrude Lawrence from 'The King and I', Jill Haworth from the original Broadway cast of 'Cabaret', Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison from 'Kiss Me Kate'. What pleasures! One non-Broadway clip that I welcomed was a brief sequence of Michael Bennett and Donna McKechnie dancing on a 1964 TV show, long before they collaborated on 'A Chorus Line'. I was also pleased by home-movie footage of the original staging of 'Porgy and Bess', along with new interviews of the performers who played the title roles in that production.
Various talking heads weigh in with their opinions. Oddly, this documentary makes no attempt to offer the credentials of these people. John Lahr states that his mother was a Ziegfeld chorus girl, yet never mentions that his father was a major Broadway comedian. George C Wolfe comments on the 1944 production of 'On the Town' (which closed long before Wolfe was born), yet never mentions that he directed an acclaimed revival of this same show. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were in that original 1944 cast of 'On the Town' (in addition to writing the book and lyrics), so I was amused here when they sing one of that show's songs ... and get the words wrong! Other errors here are less happy. Cole Porter's Broadway musical for Fred Astaire was titled 'The Gay Divorce', NOT 'The Gay Divorcée' (that was the movie version). A narrator mispronounces the name of Cole Porter's home town. Mary Rodgers gets the title wrong for one of her father's songs. (Maybe because he only wrote the tune, not the words.)
Regrettably, much of this documentary caters for what audiences will find familiar rather than trying to interest them in the unfamilar. We get a clip of the Marx Brothers in the movie version of 'Animal Crackers'. The Marxes were giants of film comedy, but their importance to Broadway's history is negligible. We are told absolutely nothing about Busby Berkeley's work on Broadway, but we get a clip from one of his Warner Brothers movies about a 'Broadway' musical that couldn't possibly be staged in a Broadway theatre. And did we need to be told for the 21,937th time that Mary Martin was from Weatherford, Texas?
This documentary intelligently reveals how the musical theatre was affected by the arrival of the subway in 1904, by Prohibition, by World War Two, by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and by the arrival of Aids. The most moving sequence here is a tribute to Broadway figures who died of Aids ... not the obvious big names, but those whom one talking head calls 'the guys in the trenches': the talented minor figures who never got their chance at stardom. Less inspiring is a film clip of Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organisation: his two sound bites about the Times Square district seem to be addressed solely to its viability as real estate. A long tribute to the Disney corporation's efforts on Broadway seems to be intended more as corporate back-scratching than anything else. Fittingly, the series ends with an elaborate tribute to Al Hirschfeld, the caricaturist who documented Broadway's best for more than seven decades!
Despite some nitpicks, I deeply enjoyed this documentary and I learnt quite a bit from it. Anyone who wants to learn about the Great White Way will get a solid grounding in the American theatre's history from these six episodes. And anyone who just wants a good time watching some enjoyable musical numbers will get plenty of that pleasure here. I rate 'Broadway: The American Musical' a full 10 out of 10. Bravo!
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