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'Broadway': The Show Of Shows

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page C01

Nearly as splashy, flashy and phantasmagorical as the American art form it celebrates, "Broadway: The American Musical" is the TV equivalent of a grandly panoramic coffee-table book. The prose is not memorable, not even good, but the illustrations are lavish and spectacular, and in many cases priceless.

The three-night, six-hour history of Broadway musicals from 1893 to the present -- one of the really big deals of the new season on public television -- airs tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at 9 on Channel 26 and other PBS stations. It looks like a ton of work went into it, but a ton of fun comes out of it. It would be awfully hard to go wrong with a show that has a score by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Eubie Blake, Leonard Bernstein and, as posters used to say, "a host of others."

Kristin Chenoweth, left, and Idina Menzel's "Wicked" is featured in PBS's "Broadway: The American Musical," a fun look back at many hit shows. (Joan Marcus -- AP)

It's a pretty heavenly host, from illustrious performers like George M. Cohan, Al Jolson and Barbra Streisand to such legendary producers as Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and the rascally David Merrick. Even though it cost him a bundle, Merrick canceled the preview to one of his musicals once on the grounds there was "a rat in the theater." Actor Jerry Orbach explains that by "rat," Merrick meant "critic," and he didn't want any critics seeing the show before its formal opening.

The show was "42nd Street" and not only did the critics end up loving it, but it's been revived again on Broadway -- a way, perhaps, of attempting to revive Mr. Merrick, who died in 2000 but left a trove of legendary tales behind him.

Of course the show has drawbacks. Even in six hours, a history of the Broadway musical is going to be incomplete, and songs are going to be truncated -- in this case, sometimes mercilessly. Just when it appears that Paul Robeson, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, will sing "Ol' Man River" in its entirety (in a performance from the James Whale film production of "Show Boat"), a narrating voice barges in on the soundtrack and unforgivably interrupts him.

Aficionados of the musical will argue until they're blue in their faces about the precedence given this show over that show or one performer over another, but in fact the material in the documentary is so basic and elemental that true aficionados will learn little that's new.

This is really an introduction to the American musical, but millions of people who have yet to be satisfactorily introduced will thus be done a great service and be entertained within inches of their lives.

A trifle less prissy-precious than usual, Julie Andrews hosts the handsome epic, at times recalling personal memories about a certain theater in which she performed, or one of her many hit shows. The six hours sometimes overlap in time periods: Part 1, "Give My Regards to Broadway," covers the years 1893 to 1927 while Part 2, "Syncopated City," spans the years 1919 through 1933. But then eras don't end tidily, like at the very end of a decade, and who's going to be bothered by an architectural detail like that?

Although the script is filled with cliches ("Audiences wanted to have a good time" in the '20s, we are told, just after hammy Mel Brooks boldly declares, "Dreams come true on Broadway"), the narrators do seem to avoid saying "And the American Musical Would Never Be the Same" after one show or another. There are occasions when it could have been said, though -- milestones that banished corny old conventions and revolutionized the form. These milestones include "Show Boat," with its theme of miscegenation; "Oklahoma!," with the sophistication of its storytelling and innovative opening number, and so on.

Because relatively few Broadway performances from the distant past were committed to film, producer Michael Kantor often has to use clips from the movie versions of the shows being chronicled. Al Jolson's performance of Gershwin's "Swanee" was recorded (for the Gershwin biopic "Rhapsody in Blue") nearly three decades after Jolson introduced it to thunderous applause on Broadway.

Experts and enthusiasts interviewed for the documentary miniseries include some figures who have since gone on to another great white way: the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, Betty Comden's witty partner Adolph Green (who launches into the wistful "Some Other Time" from "On the Town"), critic Brendan Gill and George and Ira's sister, Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Many others remain to rattle off the anecdotes and summon mercurial memories: Carol Channing, Kitty Carlisle Hart, critic John Lahr (son of actor Bert Lahr, of course), Jerry Orbach (who was singing in a Merrick production long before he was arresting bad guys on TV's "Law & Order"), songwriter Stephen Sondheim, singer-dancer Ben Vereen and, of course, Mel Brooks, who tries to turn every show into The Mel Brooks Story.

It's a pity so much time is spent on the Brooks musical "The Producers," which Brooks seems to think is the only Broadway musical ever done. It's already drowning in its own publicity and, for the record, the score stinks. But Brooks's enthusiasm for the medium -- in addition to that for himself -- is infectious.

The Golden Age of the musical is defined as being from 1943 (when "Oklahoma!" opened) to 1960. When Rudolph Giuliani cleaned up Times Square and Disneyfied the theater district, he destroyed some of the magic being remembered in the film, and so many shows -- "The Lion King," et al. -- now seem designed first and foremost to be tourist traps. But the history of the musical is lovingly maintained -- in, among other places, and not surprisingly, a companion book to this series and, oh sign of the times, a Web site keyed to the documentary and maintained by New York's Channel 13, which produced this really, really, really big show.

Six hours may sound like a long time; in fact, it flies by like a daydream -- one that is particularly dreamy. Listen to the lullaby of Old Broadway.

Broadway: The American Musical will be seen at 9 tonight, tomorrow and Thursday, for two hours each night, on PBS Channels 22 and 26.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company