Sunday, October 24, 2004

Not Yet Time for Lullabies

Did you catch Broadway: the American Musical on PBS this past week? A 6-episode chronological history, the documentary features an amazing array of footage and an excellent soundtrack. I haven't seen the last two episodes yet, but the first four are excellent, especially the first two episodes about early Broadway history, which were so interesting that I found myself taking some notes (and making a list of films to rent). A welcome part of the documentary's focus is on African-Americans, and for the first time I feel like I got some insight into blackface and minstrel shows (the story of Bert Williams, an African-American star who performed in blackface was fascinating). And the discussion of Al Jolson was interesting enough that I'm considering watching The Jazz Singer for the first time. The episodes piqued my curiosity about vaudeville and Les Folies Bergere, which were only mentioned; I'd like to learn more about pre-Broadway entertainment. I was also interested by Marilyn Miller, whom I'd never heard of before, and the wave of Irish Cinderella stories--this was the 20s, I think.

The Ken Burns-like documentary comes not long after another excellent doc showed in theaters around the country, Broadway: The Golden Age. That film is a very low-budget, DIY affair, a true labor of love by filmmaker Rick McKay, and its biggest obvious achievement is to grab interviews with a host of Broadway luminaries before they all up and die. Their enthusiasm, their talent, their humor zings off the screen like fireworks. So much ground is covered, you know you'll want to see it again. The most fascinating piece of information to jump ou at me was the fact that, aside from Brando, the actor who the Broadway stars of this era most looked up to was a woman named Laurette Taylor. Their praise for her live work was beyond enthusiastic--absolutely the stuff of legend and cult--and it made me want to check out the film work she did near the end of her career.

And earlier in the year came Broadway's Lost Treasures and a sequel, Broadway's Lost Treasures II. Basically, these specials pull together live performances of Tony-nominated numbers from Tony broadcasts throughout the years, especially one anniversary special from what looks like the 70s. It was eye-opening to see the relative lack of big production values not too long ago--no wonder Broadway tickets are so expensive now! The programs are very educational, with some jaw-droppingly good numbers sprinkled throughout. (Two of my favorites are "Lullaby of Broadway" from 42nd Street because Jerry Orbach's voice knocks me out; and a Gershwin number, "Kickin' the Clouds Away," sensationally choreographed and danced by Tommy Tune--and Twiggy!)

So what's going on with Broadway now? Is all this interest a sign of revival? With the success of the film version of Chicago, as well as the stage success of such interesting musicals as The Producers, Urinetown and Hairspray, perhaps. On the other hand, the PBS treatment also seems a little foreboding, as if Broadway had joined the Cultural Extinction Watch List. I tend to think it's a bit of both.



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