Soup to nuts, the folks over at PBS pulled it off. They've condensed the history of the American Broadway musical into six hours, and it feels about right.
Yes yes yes, there will be hordes of folks who quibble that their "all-time most important" musical didn't make it, but that's missing the point.
You will feel as if you have a serious grasp of the development of the American musical after seeing this film. Period. Mission accomplished.
The first segments of the documentary, hosted by the ageless Julie Andrews, begin with Flo Ziegfeld, and the "Follies". One thing that hasn't been mentioned (yet) is the nice concomitant history lesson you get regarding New York, Times Square and American popular culture while absorbing this mini-series. The influence of opera (or more properly, operetta), vaudeville and minstrel shows are made abundantly clear, and are fascinating to someone like me who really had no exposure to this sort of material.
As we reach mid-century, more and more of the people talked ABOUT in the film are actually alive...and the shows discussed are ridiculously familiar to even the most "uneducated" viewer. Song after song reveals their source...standards that originated on Broadway that have become part of our cultural language.
Artistic ambition grows by leaps and bounds...from the musical "revue" to musical "comedy" to a dramatic "book" musical. Storytelling techniques through song and staging develop as fast as the geniuses on the stage, behind the stage and under the stage can think...
Some of the creators, like Sondheim, are expert at analysis and insight. They provide some great "talking head" moments about musicals that aren't theirs! By and large, the critics they used for the documentary come across as enthusiastic, overwhelmingly knowledgeable, incisive, playful...I thought as a group they were terrific, without any hint of elitism, snobbery or any number of other "stereotypes" one may have about a "New York Broadway critic."
My first audible gasp came at the end of episode five, when they play that "I Love NY" commercial from the late 70's. I remember seeing that as a kid, but the only thing that had any effect on me was the presence of Brooke Shields at the end of it.
People like Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury, those "Cats" creatures and yes, I think that's Patrick Swayze in "Grease" mode...what a riot!
The most affecting portion, for me, is the last episode, for that encompasses most of my personal Broadway experience. I imagine that whatever era you feel the most affinity towards will have the same effect.
Spending 6-10 minutes per musical or producer seems criminal, until you simply appreciate the tidbits for what they are. They're like little gems. Fragments of shows that you yearn to see ALL of...
...so let me editorialize for a second.
All musicals should be filmed once with their original casts, if only for posterity. I own "Sunday In The Park With George" and "Sweeney Todd", two exemplary musicals (covered here) and nice DVD's to own. What I wouldn't give for an "Evita" (not covered here) with Lupone and Patinkin, or the original cast of "Rent". There. Editorial done.
Speaking of "Rent", the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie are an emotional tidal wave. Seeing Jonathan Larson's last day of work on video...watching him make his last milk shake at the Moondance Diner...and then finding out he dies right before previews, is not heartbreaking, it's heart-shattering.
That segment leads into the piece on 9/11. Somber and a little creepy, as you've seen almost six hours of the busiest intersections on Earth suddenly empty, a modern ghost town.
The filmmakers then pull off a terrific stunt. They show the post 9/11 commercial encouraging people to come back to NY. It echoes the one from over two decades prior, yet is defiant, proud and yes, a little inspiring.
A quick cut to "Hairspray", specifically to the finale which may be the single most energetic song to ever grace the boards, and then summing it all up with "Wicked", a musical I coincidentally just saw three weeks ago (and loved), made for an amazing viewing experience and I could not recommend this any more highly.
Now, for those of you who DO own this, my copy is plagued by a jittery video (with pristine audio) across all three discs. No one else has mentioned this, so perhaps my case is isolated...
One last request: please watch the rehearsal "bonus" footage with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, working on their song from Wicked called, "For Good." Watching and listening to these two outstanding singers tentatively creating these performances, intercut with footage from the final result, sent shivers up my spine.