Sunday, October 24, 2004

PBS's Broadway Mini-series

Figure many of you out there watched PBS's 6-hour Broadway marathon. No sooner did I post Greg's tale of how "Hooray For What" came to the 42nd St. Moon stage, then who should pop up on the mini-series? Yip Harburg's son! And talking about a different political show that Harburg wrote.

In general the mini-series focused much more on the years pre-1970. Its main theme was that musicals reflected their times. I think they supported that theme only somewhat successfully. They often seemed to be contradicting themselves. Here's one question: do tough times result in fluffy, escapist shows or darker, more topical shows? They seemed to answer yes to both options at different times in the mini-series.

They also had an annoying tendency towards superlatives and calling everything "the first". "Showboat" was the first to have somewhat of a book story, then Lorenz Hart was the first to write songs that explored relationships, then "Oklahoma" was the first to have an "integrated" book and dance that further the story, then "West Side Story" was the first with death and a sad ending and where dance was the story, then "Company" was the first where there was non-linearity, then "Sweeney" was the first with LOTS of death. And so on. I have heard these milestone descriptions many times, and could follow the point and bear the context in mind, but my S.O. kept wondering how all of these "firsts" fit together, and how they didn't contradict one another.

And frankly I think they abandoned their theme of musicals reflecting the times altogether to give us a 10 minute advertisement for "Wicked." Can anyone remind me how they explained why "Wicked" reflected these times: other than to say how expensive it is and how many producers are required?

I could go on at length about "Wicked" and how the novel reflected these times, but was gutted to make the musical. But perhaps that illustrates the point the mini-series should have made: that Broadway is more commercial than artistic now, and thus has less room to reflect the times.

Too bad, too, that the series vividly reminded me of that travesty year when "La Cage Aux Folles" beat out "Sunday in the Park" at the Tony's, particularly for Best Score. And reminded me how sore winner Jerry Herman had to get in a dig at Sondheim in his Tony acceptance speech, even though Herman was the one standing up there with the statuette in his hands. Feh!

But don't get me wrong, the mini-series was a rare and enjoyable opportunity to see footage of performers and performances well worth seeing:

Ethel Waters rocked my world with her tragic "Suppertime."

Ethel Merman apparently wasn't born at the age of 40, she just sounded that way.

Jerry Orbach definitely was born at the age of 40.

I discovered I much prefer the real Fanny Brice to the "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice.

And much more.

The series is available on VHS and DVD, and I'm sure they'll be showing it for years to come. If you missed it, do catch it. it's the most comprehensive look you're ever going to get at 100 years of art and commerce over on the original 42nd St. Moon, 42nd St., New York, NY.

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