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Broadway: The American Musical

Posted by WMHT Web Editor on

Watch Sundays, August 31 & September 7, 2014 at 2:30pm on WMHT TV.

This six-part documentary series chronicles the Broadway musical throughout the 20th century and explores the evolution of this uniquely American art form. The series draws on a wealth of archival news footage, lost and found television moments, original cast recordings, still photos, feature films, diaries, journals, intimate first-person accounts and on-camera interviews with many of the principals involved in creating the American musical.

Episode One:  Give My Regards to Broadway (1893-1927) | Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 2:30pm

When Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. arrives New York in 1893, the intersection of Broadway and 42nd is nobody’s idea of “the crossroads of the world.”  But by 1913, “The Ziegfeld Follies really were an amalgamation of everything that was happening in America, in New York, at that time,” says writer Philip Furia.  “Flo Ziegfeld was like the Broadway equivalent of the melting pot itself.”  Ziegfeld’s story introduces many of the era’s key figures:  Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who becomes the voice of assimilated America; entertainers, like Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice and African American Bert Williams, who become America’s first “crossover” artists; and the brash Irish-American George M. Cohan, whose song-and-dance routines embody the energy of Broadway.  This is also the story of the onset of a world war, and the Red Summer of 1919, when labor unrest sweeps the nation – and Broadway.  Episode One culminates in Ziegfeld’s 1927 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s far-sighted masterpiece, Show Boat.  “The history of the American musical theater is divided quite simply into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat,” says writer Miles Kreuger.

Episode Two:  Syncopated City (1919-1933) | Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 3:30pm 

Gossip columnist Walter Winchell gives Broadway a nickname that becomes synonymous with all of New York:  “It is the Big Apple, the goal of all ambitions, the pot of gold at the end of a drab and somewhat colorless rainbow….”  With the advent of Prohibition and the Jazz Age, America convulses with energy and change, and nowhere is the riotous mix of classes and cultures more dramatically on display than Broadway.  “There was this period in which everybody was leaping across borders and boundaries,” says director/producer George C. Wolfe. “There was this incredible cross-fertilization, cultural appropriation.”  While brash

American women flapped their way to newfound freedoms, heroines of Broadway like Marilyn Miller become a testament to pluck and luck.  It’s the age of “Whoopee” and the “Charleston,” Runnin’ Wild and the George White Scandals.  In 1921, a jazz show like no other arrives:  Shuffle Along, which features a rich, rousing score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, reopening Broadway’s doors to black talent.  Unique talents like the Marx Brothers and Al Jolson ­– a Jewish immigrant and Prohibition’s biggest star – rocket to stardom.  The Gershwin brothers, the minstrels of the Jazz Age, bring a “Fascinating Rhythm” to an entire nation.  Innovative songwriting teams like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ignite a new age of bright, clever lyrics with the massive hit “Manhattan.”  But as the Roaring Twenties come to a close, Broadway’s Jazz Age suffers the one-two punch of the “talking picture” and the stock market crash, triggering a massive talent exodus to Hollywood and putting an end to Broadway’s feverish expansion.

Episode Three:  I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (1930-1942) | Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 4:30pm

The Great Depression proves to be a dynamic period of creative growth on Broadway, and a dichotomy in the musical theater emerges.  Productions like Cole Porter’s Anything Goes offer glamour and high times as an escape, while others ­– such as Of Thee I Sing, which satirizes the American political system, and the remarkable WPA production of The Cradle Will Rock, about a steel strike ­– deal directly with the era’s social and political concerns.  When Bing Crosby records “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” the doleful Broadway ballad takes the hit parade by surprise.  “This song spoke to the hearts, and to the minds, and to the emotions and thoughts, of everybody who lived during that Depression,” says lyricist Yip Harburg’s son, ErnieRodgers and Hart return to New York to create a string of new shows, including the sexually frank Pal Joey, a genuine departure that stars newcomer Gene Kelly.  In the gloom of the Depression, Porter offers Broadway audiences such unforgettable songs as “You’re the Top,” which serves as an effervescent tonic to a weary nation.  In 1935, George Gershwin creates his epic masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, which becomes, in the words of one critic, “the most American opera that has yet been seen or heard.”  The onset of World War II galvanizes the country and America’s troubadour, Irving Berlin, rallies the troops with This Is the Army.

Episode Four: Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (1943-1960)Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 2:30pm

The new partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II changes the face of Broadway forever, beginning with the record-breaking Oklahoma! in 1943, featuring a landmark ballet by Agnes De MilleCarousel and South Pacific thenset the standard for decades to come by pioneering a musical where story is all-important.  For challenging the country to confront its deep-seated racial bigotry, South Pacific wins the Pulitzer Prize.  In On the Town, an exuberant team of novices ­– Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jerome Robbins ­– capture the energy, humor and pathos of New York City during World War II.  Irving Berlin triumphs again with Annie Get Your Gun, featuring Ethel Merman and the unofficial anthem of the American musical theater, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  In shows like Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and Kiss Me, Kate, sophisticated adaptations of literary material prevail.  “Cole Porter led the way in writing adult songs about love and sex,” says theater historian Robert Kimball.  “He defied the censors.  He, probably more than any other songwriter in this century, made it possible for the openness that we have in all popular music.”  In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe triumph with My Fair Lady, featuring a 20-year-old Julie Andrews.  TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show becomes the most important showcase for Broadway musicals.  Yet with the death of Oscar Hammerstein II soon after the premiere of The Sound of Music in 1959, the curtain begins to lower on a golden age.

Episode Five: Tradition (1957-1979)Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 3:30pm

West Side Story not only brings untraditional subject matter to the musical stage, it ushers in a new breed of director/choreographer who insists on performers who can dance, sing and act.  But by the time Jerome Robbins’ last original musical, Fiddler on the Roof, closes after a record run of 3,242 performances in 1972, the world of Broadway has changed forever.  Rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights and Vietnam usher in new talents, many trained by the retiring masters, taking musical theater in daring new directions with innovative productions like Hair, the first Broadway musical with an entire score of rock music.  The non-linear narrative of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Company plunges the musical into a new era.  Hal Prince’s conceptual staging showcases John Kander and Fred Ebb’s dynamic score for CabaretBob Fosse captures a sexuality and cynicism ahead of its time with Chicago, but it is director/choreographer Michael Bennett who spearheads the biggest blockbuster of all – A Chorus Line.  “It totally changed the musical theater,” says Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld.  “It was a catalyst for the improvement of this area, and of course this area is now the most desirable area in New York.”  With Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Broadway musical reaches unexpected new heights in style and material with a tale of slaughter and cannibalism set in 19th-century London.  By the end of the 1970s, Broadway becomes the centerpiece of a remarkably successful public relations campaign that will lure tourists to New York for years to come.

Episode Six: Putting It Together (1980-Present) | Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 4:30pm

Legendary as the “Abominable Showman,” notorious producer David Merrick re-conquers Broadway in 1980 with a smash adaptation of the movie musical 42nd Street.  But soon the biggest hits are arriving from an unexpected source – London.  Producer Cameron Mackintosh redefines the business of show business as Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon become international blockbusters.  James Lapine lures Stephen Sondheim off-Broadway to develop Sunday in the Park With George, while Jerry Herman’s crowd-pleasing La Cage aux Folles has two men sing a love song to each other for the first time on Broadway.  The AIDS crisis decimates Broadway.  With Julie Taymor’s triumphant re-imagining of The Lion King, Disney leads an astonishing resurrection of 42nd Street.  Composer Jonathan Larson scores a bittersweet victory with the rock-flavored Rent, and the old-style musical is reborn in Mel BrooksThe Producers, which becomes the first must-see musical comedy in decades, fetching a ticket price of $480 for each VIP seat.  After 9/11, Broadway – like the rest of America – emerges from the darkness.  Broadway’s corporate dominance continues to grow, as evidenced by new shows such as Wicked, the biggest hit of the 2003-04 season.  “Oh, I’ve been hearing about Broadway disappearing ever since I put on long pants,” says the illustrator Al Hirschfeld.  “I mean, it’s been the fabulous invalid.  You know, but it survives, it survives.”