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Broadway: The American Musical

4.5 out of 5 stars 135 customer reviews

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(Oct 12, 2004)
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Editorial Reviews

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

Special Features

  • Additional performances: Early vaudeville films from the Library of Congress Variety Stage collection; Bill Robinson performance featured in the movie Harlem Is Heaven (1932); Eddie Cantor's tailor-shop routine in the 1929 feature film Glorifying the American Girl; "Hostesses of the Stage Door Canteen" from Irving Berlin's wartime revue This Is the Army; "If I Loved You" from Carousel performed by John Raitt and Jan Clayton; "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific performed by Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin; "Someone in a Tree" with an interview by Frank Rich and performance by Stephen Sondheim and the original cast of Pacific Overtures; Jonathan Larson's "Sunday"; "For Good" - a glimpse into rehearsal with Wicked composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and musical director Stephen Oremus, and performed by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel
  • Over three hours of additional interviews with Broadway composers, directors, and stars
  • Special featurette: "Wicked: The Road to Broadway"

Product Details

  • Actors: Tim Breese, Richard Costas, Paul Daley, Teri DiGianfelice, Rich DiMinno
  • Directors: Michael Kantor
  • Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen, Box set, NTSC
  • Language: English (Unknown)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 3
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: PBS Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: October 12, 2004
  • Run Time: 360 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (135 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0002V7THY
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,762 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Broadway: The American Musical" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M J Heilbron Jr. VINE VOICE on November 8, 2004
Format: DVD
Soup to nuts, the folks over at PBS pulled it off. They've condensed the history of the American Broadway musical into six hours, and it feels about right.

Yes yes yes, there will be hordes of folks who quibble that their "all-time most important" musical didn't make it, but that's missing the point.

You will feel as if you have a serious grasp of the development of the American musical after seeing this film. Period. Mission accomplished.

The first segments of the documentary, hosted by the ageless Julie Andrews, begin with Flo Ziegfeld, and the "Follies". One thing that hasn't been mentioned (yet) is the nice concomitant history lesson you get regarding New York, Times Square and American popular culture while absorbing this mini-series. The influence of opera (or more properly, operetta), vaudeville and minstrel shows are made abundantly clear, and are fascinating to someone like me who really had no exposure to this sort of material.

As we reach mid-century, more and more of the people talked ABOUT in the film are actually alive...and the shows discussed are ridiculously familiar to even the most "uneducated" viewer. Song after song reveals their source...standards that originated on Broadway that have become part of our cultural language.

Artistic ambition grows by leaps and bounds...from the musical "revue" to musical "comedy" to a dramatic "book" musical. Storytelling techniques through song and staging develop as fast as the geniuses on the stage, behind the stage and under the stage can think...

Some of the creators, like Sondheim, are expert at analysis and insight. They provide some great "talking head" moments about musicals that aren't theirs!
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Format: DVD
One year for my birthday I received a trio of products based on Michael Kantor's documentary "Broadway: the American Musical." I received the book, the 5 CD set, and the DVD set as well.

I absolutely love them.

I've been doing theatre for over twenty years and I have both Bachelors and Masters degrees in theatre. I have a special love for the musical. This film goes into detail from the earliest days of Broadway, hitting the highlights from Ziegfeld and Cohen to Wicked. The story moves chronologically, but also finds themes: the commercialization of Broadway, the difficulty of mounting new productions, and the evolution of the artistic form.

Hosted by Julie Andrews, it shows a lot of archival footage, especially in the later chapters, juxtaposed with recent interviews. It's wonderful to see Jerry Orbach in the original Chicago and then hear his memories of the play in an interview taped before his death. There are very few films from those old days, but luckily so many numbers from musicals were featured on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and are included here. It's also fun to see what Times Square looked like pre-Gulianni.

Extras include a behind the scenes look at Wicked and an early performance of Jonathan Larson's song "Sunday." Also included are additional interviews from many of Broadway's finest.

If I had one criticism it would be that it's not long enough to include all of my favorite shows, but I can live with that. It's really for the Broadway crowd, but if you're in the crowd you'll love it, and you'll want to pick up the book and CDs too.
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Format: DVD
I saw a press copy of the series and was absolutely awestruck. It covers the history of the Broadway musical from its origins to present day, and manages to tell both the big stories and the little-known gems of performers, composers etc whose names have since faded from popular memory. It's very PBS-like to use something so inherently American (the Broadway musical) to tell the story of our cultural history, as they did with the Baseball series, the Jazz series etc. But it works beautifully, and the series is much more than just a collection of performance clips (if that's all you want, there are plenty of greatest-hits packages on the market). The PBS series is the real deal.

One thing that really impressed me is the amount of film footage the filmmakers managed to find of original shows (some of the old stuff in color - amazing!). Many thanks to whoever had the foresight to film this stuff and save it for posterity, and congrats to the filmmakers for hunting it down and giving it a proper showcase. They also scored interviews with all the Broadway heavy-hitters, and got them to really talk instead of just repeating their old stories. I loved seeing Michael Kidd, who talked about the "dese, dem and dose" characters in "Guys and Dolls" - himself in an old-school New York street accent! And Jerry Mitchell's story about seeing "A Chorus Line," learning the opening combination, landing a role and going on tour gave me chills.

Overall, a major achievement for PBS, a huge delight for theater buffs like myself, and a wonderful introduction to musical theater for anyone who thinks Broadway is just a street in Manhattan. One complaint: why does the Jazz series get 19 hours and Broadway only 6? I would've liked to have seen more of everything. A+++.
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