Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Broadway Musical -- a 6 hour PBS documentary

I spent most of Saturday watching the 6-hour PBS documentary on the Broadway Musical, and thumbing through the massive companion volume that accompanies the book. In grand blogging fashion, I am going to link you to Ken Mandelbaum's comprehensive review of show and book, and the longer DVD version of the show and the CD. If you care about Broadway musicals, and are not reading Ken Mandelbaum religiously, you ought to be.

I am also running the review, because I have no problem with anything Mandelbaum said, as far as it goes. It's descriptive, accurate, and allows me to carp and bitch in the paragraphs below.

As a fanatic, I enjoyed the program, and expect to watch it again. I will read the book, maybe get the DVDs and the CDs.

However, one cannot help but think that there was a better show screaming to get out, that the points fleetingly mentioned could have been nailed down better, so that the documentary, rather than sometimes seeming like a photo album of your neighbor's vacation, could have said something.

The show introduced a number of promising through-lines, but the most interesting one is the one they seemed to be afraid to see all the way through. The history of commercial musical theater on Broadway emphasizes the commercial, first. The early part of the documentary focussed on Ziegfeld, and Cohan, and even managed to mention the bitter strike that lead to the rise of Actors Equity in 1919. The end of the documentary focussed on Merrick, Mackintosh and Disney, certain truths that are mocked in The Producers, and the 21st century issues arising in the production of Wicked. In the middle, the documentary dropped the ball concerning what people have to do to raise money in theatre, and how that has dictated what has been possible and not possible to do in the Broadway Musical.

The program could have focussed on great stars, and what it meant to be the toast of the Great White Way from time to time. They never did that very well, despite a few minutes of Ehtel Merman. They could have plotted the career of Julie Andrews, who was their narrator, for crying out loud. The choice not to do that took, in my opinion, a lot of sizzle out of the show.

It looked for a while like the documentary would focus on the evolution of musicals that either were made by African Americans, or were about African Americans, but they seemed to abandon the theme after the Porgy and Bess discussion. They showed some pictures towards the end of Greogory Hines and Savion Glover, without bothering to mention why they were important.

The show had long stretches where they interviewed George C. Wolfe. However, if you did not already know it, the show never explained that Wolfe he took over the Public Theatre after Joe Papp died (which is why they interviewed him during the Chorus Line segment), or that he directed his own revival of On The Town (which is why they interviewed him during the On The Town segment), or directed the Broadway production of Angels In America (which is why he could speak of La Cage Aux Folles), or had a successful playwrighting career.

All documentaries, all books on Broadway, constantly mention the expansion of subject matter that is suitable for a musical. However, for me, this documentary inadvertently made clear that Showboat is 1927, Of Thee I Sing is 1931, and As Thousands Cheer is 1933 and Carousel is 1945, and unless your name is Sondheim, it is hard to get anything dangerous produced during the 60 years following

Once again, tracing the throughline of Julie Andrews career, from The Boyfriend and Mary Poppins through to Victor/ Victoria could have covered a lot of ground, even if it left the extremes of Friml and Sondheim off.

One way the documentary could have proved me wrong was to spend more time with and about Sondheim. It is beyond the scope of any popular, mainstream documentary to explain Sondheim's enormous, yet problematic place in the history of the American Musical Theater. (i.e., although Sondheim spent 40 years showing us what is possible, it is not always clear that it was the best use of resources.) Since Sondheim cooperated, and since they interviewed Sondheim at length, they could have followed the evolution of lyrics and subject matter in musicals from Showboat to Assassins. This is especially true in light of Sondheim's relationship to Oscar Hammerstein. (Although the documentary did not bother to explain to the casual viewer that Sondheim was Hammerstein's protegee, and his next-door neighbor).

The documentary mentioned Robbins, and more than mentioned Bennett and Fosse, but failed to connect Robbins to Bennett and Fosse, or how Fosse devolved into Stroman, and why that "devolution" is not Stroman's fault.

They also dropped their own point, which they made indirectly, on how Rodgers and Hammerstein, in The Sound of Music, seemed to end their careers by becoming the very thing they spent their whole careers rebelling against. Or not.

They also dropped their point on the role of Broadway in the evolution of New York City, mentioning it briefly in the very beginning, and returning to it, again in the last hours, to describe the "Taxi Driver" NYC of the mid-70s, the clean-up that was symbolized by the ability of Disney to open a theatre on West 42nd Street, and the impact of 9-11 on everything.

My point is that they mentioned all these things, only to drop them, like any thousands of musicals you see with a strong first hour and a messy second act.

I guess if I'm teaching a course in the History of the American Musical, I would definitely tell my students to see it. They should look at the documentary, and choose any show, song, or dance profiled, or any picture or any person shown, and follow it into mastery. There is a story in each of those things that the documentary touches upon but does not cover well enough. I'm sure that they, as well as I, wish they had a lot more time on the air