A delightful overview of the history of Broadway musicals.
Those looking for a collection of Broadway performances through the decades will be better served with a different set. Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-ray) is a history lesson and makes no bones about it. Originally broadcast on PBS as a miniseries, this collection brings together all six episodes, described briefly here:
* Episode One: Give My Regards to Broadway (1893-1927)
The main highlight of this episode is a discussion of Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary producer.
* Episode Two: Syncopated City (1919-1933)
This episode deals with the effects of both the advent of talking pictures and the Wall Street crash of 1929 in relation to Broadway.
* Episode Three: I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (1930-1942)
In the midst of a discussion of the Great Depression, a short biography of Ethel Merman is included. The color wall and Cole Porter are also subjects.
* Episode Four: Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (1943-1960)
This time frame is what many consider to be a “Golden Age” of Broadway musicals. The Broadway musical is forever changed by the partnership of Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers.
* Episode Five: Tradition (1957-1979)
Going to Broadway fell out of favor with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll music. But a few pioneers, most notably Stephen Sondheim, helped redefine the Broadway musical for a generation.
* Episode Six: Putting It Together (1980-2004)
Ending the series is a look at contemporary Broadway musicals paired with a reflection on how the business of show business has changed. Large corporations now find themselves taking on the role of producer, led by champion Disney. A look at the influence of London impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber is also included.
The biggest negative against Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-ray) is the lack of title cards for more than half the footage presented. For a show which purports to reveal the history of Broadway, not enough attention was paid to accurately documenting said history. Those who have a basic understanding of Broadway can identify things like a clip from a Tony Awards broadcast, for example, but early performances especially are missing key identification which would enrich the presentation dramatically.
Any chance to glimpse the history of an American institution is something I gravitate toward and this is no exception. One of the best things about Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-Ray) is its narrator, Julie Andrews (Despicable Me) who provides the common thread. As someone who made her way on Broadway, she’s a natural choice. She makes what could be a rather dry and dull narration come alive by projecting her emotional connection to the material.
There’s no denying the rich history of the Broadway stage, so if you appreciate that this is right up your alley. But be warned this is not a definitive history, and rabid fans will likely quibble over inclusions and exclusions. There’s simply too much history to be compressed into just under an hour per episode. So the high notes are hit and you’re left wanting more. I find this to be the mark of a well-made documentary and if you agree, Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-ray) is well worth your time.
As you can imagine on such a set the video quality varies widely. Broadway buffs will go gaga over the inclusion of so many early clips from the very beginnings of image capture. It’s at its best during the Julie Andrews’ narration and the 2004 interviews, all in HD. I was surprised the Blu-ray release didn’t include an upgrade from the Dolby Digital 2.0 track. While it’s amazing so many recordings are present, especially those from the early 1900’s, this is the type of collection which begs for the clearest digitally re-mastered sound available.
The special features put this series over the top. Clocking in at over three hours, it has additional interviews, nine uncut performances and a featurette detailing the effort to produce the musical Wicked on Broadway.
Many will complain the performances are needlessly shortened. While I too would relish the chance to watch an uninterrupted view of these treasures, the truth is that’s not what this series is meant to be. It’s a history lesson as opposed to a retrospective, and so your expectations should be adjusted accordingly. I didn’t know anything about Broadway: The American Musical (Blu-ray) going in and that worked to my benefit. If you are interested in a history of Broadway and are willing to accept the truncation of the performances, you would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying glimpse.