For three enchanted evenings, guys and dolls can hear the sound of music from 42nd Street to Chicago to Oklahoma.

"Broadway: The American Musical," a six-part documentary, will premiere this week in three two-hour blocks on PBS.

It took about 10 years to put together the series, which reviews more than 100 years of musical theater and how it relates to American life.

"The music reaches so deeply into so many aspects of our lives," said series creator Michael Kantor. People know the songs even if they haven't set a foot on Broadway.

"You go in an elevator and hear the music. Or sing a song like 'Edelweiss' to put your children to sleep. Or sing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' in a Fourth of July celebration," Kantor said.

He got the idea for the series while riding in a cab through Times Square in the early '90s, when the area was "pretty raunchy," he said.

But he also saw the brilliant lights of the Great White Way and decided that he wanted to tell the story of Broadway.

Stellar performances would be an important part of the story, Kantor realized, but he wanted to do more than a compilation of great clips.

"The Broadway musical is a barometer of American culture," he said. "Through the Broadway shows, the sound, the music, we see the bigger picture -- what we [as a nation] were doing and what we were feeling."

Kantor quotes Edgar "Yip" Harburg, who wrote the Depression-era "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," as saying: "Songs are the pulse of a nation's heart. A fever chart of its health. Are we at peace? Are we in trouble? Are we floundering? Do we feel beautiful? Do we feel ugly? Listen to our songs . . ."

Hosting the series is Julie Andrews, who made her Broadway debut in 1953 in "The Boy Friend" and starred in Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot."

"Julie Andrews is the icon. She is musical theater," Kantor said. "My daughter saw her in [the movie] 'Princess Diaries,' and my parents saw her in 'My Fair Lady.' Her incredible talent spans three generations and brings this story to all generations."

In the first episode of the series, Andrews talks about legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld, "the first great impresario of the American musical, so let's start at the very beginning -- which we all know is a very good place to start."

The series uses interviews, archival footage, newsreels, home movies, original cast recordings, still photos, excerpts from diaries and letters, autobiographical material and an occasional reenactment.

A strength of the documentary, Kantor said, is that it includes about 80 interviews with "titans of the Broadway musical world who speak about their own work or the work of their colleagues."

This is not a documentary with his point of view, Kantor said. "You just let the material do the work for you. I took the advice of my wife. I think she said, 'Don't screw up the material.' "

Kantor began interviews for the project in 1996, starting with people for whom age and health were considerations, then adding other essential people.

Doris Eaton Travis, now 100, was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1918 when she was just 14 years old.

In the first episode of the series, she revisits the New Amsterdam Theater where she once performed and was an understudy in 1919 to star Marilyn Miller, "famous of course for the 'Mandy' routine that Irving Berlin wrote," she says.

She glides across the stage in her low-heeled pumps before an empty house, singing "Mandy" a cappella and tapping out the dance steps she learned 80 years ago.

In a telephone interview from her home in Oklahoma, Travis pointed out that there was a distinction between showgirls and dancers.

"The showgirls were tall and beautiful and wore lovely costumes," she said. "I was a dancer -- one of the hoofers who did all the dance routines.

"It's hard to describe what it is like. You are in your costume, you dance out and do your routine. It's a delightful few minutes that you are there. It's always a feeling of rapport with the audience. You know they are there and smiling at you in the front row," she said.

At the beginning and throughout the series is the work of composer Irving Berlin, whose daughter Mary Ellin Barrett shares recollections of her father.

At the end of the third episode, she talks about "This Is the Army," the first opening night she ever attended, on July 4, 1942.

The show had a cast of soldiers "singing new Irving Berlin songs, doing skits, being marvelous," she says.

"And then, towards the end of the second act, my father himself came out onstage. There he was in his World War I uniform, and he sang -- with that true, frail voice -- a little nervous at first, and then beginning to pick up, and tapping, you know, beating his hat against his leg for the rhythm, really delivering it."

One of the most memorable scenes in the documentary is a film clip of Berlin singing that song: "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."

That number was her family's theme song, Barrett said in a telephone interview from New York. But Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business" described how he felt about the theater. "He loved Broadway, he loved the whole thing," she said.

Actor Jerry Orbach, most recently known as detective Lennie Briscoe in television's "Law & Order," is shown performing in Broadway musicals such as the original stage version of "Chicago," and talking about legendary producer David Merrick.

"The musical itself is uniquely American," Orbach said in a telephone interview from New York. "As a form, Broadway musicals have held their own."

Jac Venza, executive producer of the series, said, "In high schools everywhere, kids are doing plays such as 'The King and I," and there are community theaters where people are involved. This series is a big step forward in realizing how big the picture is.

. . . The theater always surprises you."

Beyond 'Broadway'

Several companion activities and products accompany the six-hour series that is airing on PBS this week:

* Online chats: Washington Post Live Online will host Broadway luminaries Marvin Hamlisch, Joel Grey, and others beginning on Oct. 19. Check the schedule at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

* Companion products: The book "Broadway: The American Musical"; a "Broadway" VHS and DVD (the DVD has five hours of bonus footage); and "Broadway" CDs are available on the program's Web site: pbs.org/broadway.

* For secondary school teachers: A packet of resource material is available. Send an e-mail with name, address, school and class to: guiderequest@thirteen.org. Teachers also may download the packet from the program Web site.