Like its fellow PBS series Ken Burns' Jazz, Broadway: The American Musical is an ambitious and absorbing exploration of a unique American art form that has always been best experienced in live performance. Hosted and narrated by Julie Andrews, the six-part, six-hour documentary traces the history of musical theater from its roots in vaudeville, operetta, and minstrel shows, to the dawn of what would become the modern American musical, Show Boat, and on through many changes that seemed to reflect those in American culture itself. Significant creators discussed include Florenz Ziegfeld, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse, and David Merrick, and notable shows (Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Company, Cats, and recent hit Wicked, among others) are analyzed through performance clips and interviews with songwriters, stars, directors, producers, critics, and historians.
The series' most obvious weakness is its use of only brief excerpts of the performances--no song is heard in full. The sheer scope of the series no doubt played a part in that, as well as complicated rights issues, but the core problem is that musical theater has always been a live medium, rarely documented and even more rarely released to the general public. The documentary's producers make do with audio recordings, still photographs, and bits of footage, often in grainy black and white. Thankfully, they resist over-relying on feature-film musicals--which look much better and are sometimes excellent (but more often mediocre) translations--and when used such footage is clearly identified. That makes it all the more frustrating, however, that almost all of the other footage is not identified, because that is what fans are less familiar with and would be most interested in. The 1950s footage looks to be mostly from TV programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show; by the 1960s we have live footage from the Tony Awards (easily identifiable by the backdrops); and the newest shows might have been shot on stage. But early Ethel Merman and other random clips are mysteries, perhaps even to the producers themselves.
Because the series is designed to appeal to a general audience (again like Jazz), a lot of the information won't be new to diehard Broadway fans, but they should be especially pleased by the DVDs' bonus features, which include additional performances and about four more hours of interviews. Stephen Sondheim fans should be fascinated by footage of the composer-lyricist discussing "Someone in a Tree" at the piano, and then running through the song with original cast members of Pacific Overtures, as well as interviews of him talking about his own shows and songs (e.g., listing the songwriters he pastiched in Follies) and reminiscing about mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Other bonus performances include vaudeville films from the Library of Congress, original-cast television performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" (from Carousel, unfolding over 12 minutes) and "Some Enchanted Evening" (the reprise version from South Pacific), Rent's Jonathan Larson spoofing Sondheim, and two behind-the-scenes looks at Wicked. --David Horiuchi