There are many ways to approach the topic of musical theatre. There’s the scholarly approach of books that survey the topic as a whole. There’s the research approach that digs into one slice of the topic at great length. There’s the biographical approach looking at the life of one contributor or team at a time. There’s the reference approach providing tabular or statistical details in orderly presentations that make it easy to look up a specific fact. Then there’s the collector’s approach which is to gather all of the above and use each to expand your knowledge or appreciation of this particular art form.
Ah, but what if you don’t want to build the worlds biggest library of theatre-related material? What if you just want to gain a familiarity with the topic and an appreciation for its history, variety and vitality? How about the multi-media approach?
In 2004, Michael Kantor’s six hour exploration of the history of the Broadway musical stage was telecast on PBS. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Series of the year. The episodes have been released on DVD with an additional three hours of snippets from the interviews Kantor conducted for the documentary. Also included is a fifteen minute documentary on the development of the musical Wicked and a few other “bonus” items. The documentary on Wicked can be sampled via YouTube (see below) where you can get a feeling for the narration for the full series which was read by Julie Andrews.
At the time the series ran on PBS, a big, photo-packed coffee-table book was prepared. The six pound hardbound book has now been up-dated as a five pound softbound one. It makes for fascinating browsing, and, with its 2010 updating, you will even find references to such new musicals as The Addams Family and Next to Normal.
One of the marvelous things about the art form that came to maturity on Broadway stages is that it can be rewarding from so many different aspects. Just attending a single show can be a thrill. Attending as many as possible can become an addiction. Following the careers of individual artists can be tremendously rewarding. And somehow, the more familiar you are with the genre the more you can get out of it.
Kantor’s book, written with Laurence Maslon of the Tisch School of the Arts, follows the structure of the six episodes found on the three DVDs.
“Give My Regards to Broadway” covers the start of it all with the creation of the theatre district that became universally known as “Broadway” and the work of the likes of Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, and the rest.
Picking up with the 1920s and 30s with its jazz influence, “Syncopated City” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin'” focus on performers Fred and Adele Astair, The Marx Brothers, Bea Lillie, Ed Wynn and Al Jolson, creators like Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and the Gershwins and shows like revues (Garrick Gaities), book musicals (Of Thee I Sing) operettas (The Desert Song) and unclassifiable but unmissable gems such as Show Boat and Porgy and Bess.
Fittingly, the next episode/chapter doesn’t start with a new decade but with a new era, the “Golden Age” which is now nearly universally considered to start the evening of March 3, 1943 when Alfred Drake quietly crooned “Oh, what a beautiful mornin'” from the wings of the St. James Theatre while Betty Garde sat alone on stage churning butter in Oklahoma!. Just how far the “Golden Age” extended is debatable, but Kantor carries coverage through 1959 and then picks up with another episode/chapter to carry the documentary and the book through to 1979. Finally, the documentary brings the story up to 2004 while the revised and updated book goes all the way to 2009.
The intriguing material continues all the way through to the book’s final set of illustrations, a pair of maps of the New York Theater District. One is from 1928 and one from 2010. In 1928, the year before the stock market crash and the collapse of the box office bonanza of Broadway, the map shows 79 “legitimate” theatres between West 35th and 54th Streets from just east of Sixth to just west of Eighth Avenues. The 2010 map shows 33 of these theaters still operating (some under a different name) after over eighty years. Forty-six legitimate theatres from 1928 are gone, and only 12 newly constructed theatres show on the 2010 map. There are three houses showing on the 2010 map that aren’t on the 1928 map because they weren’t “legitimate” theatres. The Palace, which was a vaudeville house, the Broadway was a movie house and Studio 54 was then an opera house. And some of the houses that do appear on the 2010 map are considered “Off-Broadway” today while at least one “Broadway House” (the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center) is outside the boundaries of either map.
This, of course, raises the question: “What is Broadway?” Many will respond that it is a contractual issue – do the artists who work there receive the minimum of Actors’ Equity Association’s “Broadway Contract?” Others will say that its a matter of Tony Award eligibility. I kind of like the way George M. Cohan put it in the script for Broadway Jones in 1914 in dialogue that Kantor and Maslon put at the very start of the book:
Josie: What is Broadway?
Josie: A street?
Jones: Sure, its the greatest street in the world.
Josie: Some people say it’s terrible.
Jones: Philadelphia people.
Josie: And some people say it’s wonderful.
Jones: That’s just it. it’s terribly wonderful.
Josie: I don’t understand.
Jones: Nobody understands Broadway. People hate it and don’t know why. People love it and don’t know why. Its just because it’s Broadway.