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On Broadway: PBS salutes the shows that made the White Way great in Broadway: the American Musical, a new series with vintage footage and rare interviews.

My first newspaper job was working for a veteran entertainment editor, then in his 70s, who'd been going to Broadway shows for well over 50 years. As for me, well, I was fresh out of school; I could count my Broadway musicals on the fingers of one hand.

It's not that I didn't know about musical theater; I did. But I knew what I knew mostly from reading books and newspapers, from watching old movies on TV, from listening to original-cast recording. I had seen professional productions only of Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!, High Spirits, and Hair. He, by contrast, had vivid, firsthand memories of seminal stars like Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, and Bert Williams. He'd seen the original Broadway outings of Porgy and Bess. Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific. And he was prone to extended sighing about the good old days, when Fred Astaire danced with his sister Adele, not that Tinseltown parvenu Ginger Rogers.

But his Golden Age was to me the Stone Age ah irretrievable prehistory that had left behind only fragmentary shards. Yes, I'd seen Ethel Merman as Mama Rose. But I knew her only as ah aging, bugle-voiced diva; he remembered her as a hot young thing singing "I Got Rhythm." That's what time does to theater--to all live performance. Everything yon don't experience in the here and now of a theater seat, in that unique moment of space and time shared with a performer, becomes, ultimately, unknowable. And even though I'd seen Broadway stars doing their numbers on television, the history of musical theater began for me forty-three years ago with Gypsy. For the 6-year-old at today's matinee of The Lion King, musicals begin right now, with that electric, eye-popping, mind-blowing parade of animals.

Which is why the ambitious, three-part documentary that airs on PBS this month, Broadway: The American Musical, is both miraculous and pointless, exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, it's a jam-packed six-hour trip through 100 years of theater history--it gives you the illusion of catching up with what happened before you saw your very first show. On the other hand, well, it's a jam-packed six-hour trip through 100 years of theater history--and you know perfectly well you can't ever really catch up.

That said, don't even think about skipping it. For fans and performers alike, Michael Kantor's documentary, scheduled for Oct. 19, 20, and 21, will provide fleeting, tantalizing glimpses of storied, long-gone legends: of George M. Cohan (not James Cagney of Joel Grey!) in full gallop across the stage; of Marilyn Miller, whose coltish, loose-limbed dancing is so winsome that her allure shines right through the grainy scrim of ancient film; of Al Jolson, swiveling his hips and making me finally understand--all these years later--why my old boss considered him the most sensational performer he'd ever seen; of George Gershwin banging on the rehearsal piano for a galaxy of tapping chorus girls; of Ethel Waters and John Bubbles performing together.

And then there are the talking heads. Stephen Sondheim saying: "I think there's Porgy, and I think there's everything else." Agnes de Mille remembering her momentous question to Oscar Hammerstein regarding the book for Oklahoma: "What has this ballet to do with the play?" Jerome Robbins musing on adapting Romeo and Juliet: "What could I do to make it alive? What it I made it today?" The result, of course, was West Side Story. And let's not forget Mel Brooks, enunciating in his own special way the mantra of the eternally stagestruck: "I would work in the men's room of a Broadway theater!"

Many more theatrical notables have their say in Broadway: The American Musical--the host is the exceptionally notable Julie Andrews. And hundreds of photographs and snippets of film document the incremental changes that turned loosely structured variety shows into elaborate, tightly focused song-dramas. (There's also a companion book with the same rifle, by Kantor and Laurence Maslon, published by Bulfinch Press.) The show traces the evolution of the musical form itself, from The Black Crook to Wicked, while detailing the contributions of individual creators and performers. But Kantor takes his inquiry one step further, trying to analyze the ways in which musicals have and haven't reflected the larger story of our times. Originally designed merely to entertain New York's turn-of-the-century immigrant masses, musicals had by mid-century morphed into vehicles for ideas, agents for social change. But somehow, as the silly and the serious vied for supremacy 011 Broadway, the great mass audience drifted away, leaving this uniquely American art form to the tourists and the cultists.

I'm one of the latter, of course. I wouldn't have passed up last season's Assassins for anything, even though I can recall the original, off-Broadway version of this gut-wrenching Sondheim show. I've just seen David Leveaux's Chekhovian production of Fiddler on the Roof for the second time and with a replacement Tevye--even though I'd seen two versions of the original, one with Herschel Bernardi and the other with Zero Mostel. With over tour decades of musicals now under my belt, I watched the last two parts of Broadway: The American Musical wondering why some of my favorite shows--Dreamgirls, for example, and City of Angels--were not mentioned. If a 20-something Broadway fan came to work for me today, I would have to explain why Donna McKechnie, Ben Vereen and Jerry Orbach are interviewed in the show, and why Bernadette Peters should have been. I would sigh about Sunday in the Park With George, Pacific Overtures, Ain't Misbehavin'. And I would explain that even though all those great performances and wonderful shows belong irrevocably to the past, there would be many, many more that belong to the future.

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for Newsday and The New York Times.
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Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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