In the classic American musical, the hero, or more likely the heroine, is on the outside looking in with nose pressed against the glass, trying to get a taste of the American dream.
Even when the locale is foreign, as in "South Pacific," the transformation of the central characters is of central concern. There is no ceiling for Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," unlike the limits that Bernard Shaw saw for her in "Pygmalion." Maria in "The Sound of Music" and Maria in "West Side Story" are profoundly changed by the end of those musicals. And though the latter has just lost her love, at least she (unlike Juliet) survives to plead for tolerance in an America to come.
For five of its six hours, the PBS series "Broadway: The American Musical" beautifully traces how America's outsiders -- immigrants and their families, African-Americans, gay men -- combined the musical revue with European operetta and American jazz to create a near-perfect blend of entertainment and art.
Alas, the awful final hour gets away from producer Michael Kantor. The series leaves us holding the nose instead of walking on air.
Five out of six isn't bad in most endeavors, so there's mostly good news here. Narrating this series -- coproduced by WNET in New York, Ghost Light Films, and the BBC, among others -- about a great American art form is that great American entertainer . . . Julie Andrews? Instead of trashing PBS for its Anglophilia, I suppose we can offer the endearing Broadway star honorary citizenship for the series (though my choice would have been the four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who is present here only as a voice-over).
The series begins at the turn of the 20th century with Florenz Ziegfeld, whose "Ziegfeld Follies" borrowed from France's Folies-Bergere, but the chorus girls were joined by comedians, dancers, and singers in a series of loose skits and solos.
It's a treat to see stars like Fanny Brice and Bert Williams, who turned minstrelsy on its ear, and Kantor does a creditable if overly brief job of connecting how Irving Berlin, the son of a rabbi, transformed Judaic melodies into the big, broad songs of Tin Pan Alley.
Ditto Eubie Blake's and George Gershwin's incorporating jazz into the musical language. (What do Berlin and rap artists have in common? Berlin, too, was accused of hastening the end of Western civilization.)
The melting pot had its problems on Broadway, as it did in the rest of the country. "Follies" stars threatened to quit when Ziegfeld hired Williams, a West Indian immigrant. Ziegfeld called their racist bluff. Years later when the union was striking over labor issues, Williams showed up for work and started applying his makeup. Nobody had bothered to tell him about the strike.
Kantor's style, due perhaps to the subject matter, is more exuberant and less didactic than that of Ken Burns and other documentarians, though there is the requisite assortment of talking heads, from Frank Rich to Stephen Sondheim. Al Hirschfeld, Brendan Gill, and Adolph Green, among others, passed on their eloquence before passing on.
Movies and the Depression slowed the growth of the musical, which had seemed to be gathering steam with "Show Boat" in 1927.
Wednesday night's two middle episodes, ranging from 1930 to 1960, are the best. Not only does the musical reach maturity with Richard Rodgers and his two partners, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and others, but the clips get sharper. We're reminded of the two great Ethels, Merman and Waters, and it's eye-opening to see Merman's young beauty instead of the older stereotype. Waters's performance of "Suppertime," about lynching, is astounding.
Gershwin's long fingers are a sight in themselves, and the recounting of the creation of "Porgy and Bess" is one of the series's highlights. "There's Porgy and then there's everything else," says Sondheim, who also tells how Oscar Hammerstein mentored him. (He ruined Dorothy Hammerstein's fur by bawling into it when they took him to see "Oklahoma!")
Lorenz Hart is often favored over Hammerstein by the intelligentsia, but the series makes clear that no one was more important in developing the book musical than Hammerstein, who is also credited with inventing the conditional ballad, like "If I Loved You," so the protagonists could have a first-act love song before they actually fell in love.
Rock music ended the musical's pop primacy in the 1960s, but the series does a good job charting how Broadway adapted by either incorporating rock elements ("Hair") or going in a totally different direction. Again, Sondheim is key in detailing the elements of his musical composition. Too bad there aren't more such moments in talking about other composers.
Sondheim also has his moments in the final hour, as does Mel Brooks, who reunited the musical with its glorious past in "The Producers," albeit in a satirical way.
Nevertheless, "Broadway: The American Musical" goes out on a sour note, and this isn't because the musical isn't as good as it once was. Kantor spends altogether too much time with the Eurotrash -- producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Lloyd Webber and the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg ("Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon") -- before concluding with "Wicked." And unlike Richard Eyre's 2001 series on the theater, "Changing Stages," "Broadway" doesn't have the taste or the guts to be critical of any of these shows.
The point isn't that Lloyd Webber and "The Lion King" aren't of historical interest. But musicals like "Cats" and "Wicked" are not "the place where art and commerce intersect," as Andrews says of "Wicked"; they are purely commercial vehicles. Meanwhile, not a word about "Ragtime" or the two best shows from last season -- "Avenue Q," which upset "Wicked" for the Tony, or "Caroline, or Change."
"Caroline" was not a commercial success, but neither was "Porgy and Bess." For Kantor to ignore the bright spots in favor of schlock is the wrong way to end the series. Why not talk about how the characters in "Ragtime," "Hairspray," "Avenue Q," "The Producers," and "Caroline" retell the story of outsiders wanting in?
This is where art and commerce intersect, and an entity like PBS should be more sensitive to the former.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.