"Broadway" Entirely Too Self-Indulgent, But Occasionally Interesting Review

Broadway is life!

Uniquely American art form? If they make one more empty platitude about musicals or Broadway, something will be thrown at great velocity.  Julie Andrews hosts this half-history, half-propaganda piece concerning roadway and the American musical from the turn of the century to the early 21st century.  It goes from Ragtime and Vaudeville to Wicked and The Lion King major personality by major personality.

For those who are well-educated in early 20th century musicals, this is a highly gratifying documentary.  They’ll join in with Andrews when she says in that hushed, rich voice what she takes to be a famous person or song.  “That great composer was…Irving Berlin.”  For those looking to learn, you can be sure that a large corner of Broadway is on display for you. 

However, it isn’t a series of lectures on the subject.  Perhaps that’s just as well.  But there’s a greater context to Broadway than the individual shows.  There are the less successful performers, Off-Broadway, the critics, the financiers, the uptown girls, and the flops (to say nothing of back-stage, rehearsals, set building, and lighting).  It does touch on these, but at a glance rather than giving a full understanding.  It’s churlish to complain that a documentary isn’t the last word on the subject, but this is called Broadway: The American Musical.  What it gives you is somewhere between VH1 and PBS (which produced and aired the series).  What use is it for a talking head to describe a song as soft or moving?

Don’t run away with the idea that the documentary has nothing to say for itself.  Moments of it are very good.  Its discussion of Porgy & Bess, for example, is thorough and interesting.  By part four, the documentary starts coverage of the Golden Age and Rogers and Hammerstein and the story of Broadway begins to flesh out.  The central thought, in a reviewer’s mind at any rate, was “why did they spend two hours to get to the thirties?”  For that matter, an addendum is definitely worth creating and putting into this series about the past eight years where Avenue Q, Jason Robert Brown, and other large shifts have taken place.  Perhaps in two years, when this recession is in the rearview mirror (fingers crossed), they can take a better perspective on this era.

The great Blu-ray dilemma is the reproduction of old films.  At some point, you can do nothing for poor film quality and maybe they shouldn’t.  In Broadway: The American Musical, there is a combination of old and semi-old film that are smoky at best against up-scaled pictures (which look great) and their own talking heads (which are in no need of higher definition).  The greatest benefit of Blu-ray, however, is the virtually limitless space it allows for special features.  A DVD can hold between five and nine gigabytes.  A Blu-ray can hold between twenty-five and a hundred gigabytes.  They have decided to use that space in the following way:

Bonus Features

Disc 2

The Extended Interviews are in some ways better than the whole series itself.  Mel Brooks and Sondheim are especially good.  Sondheim should have hosted or co-hosted the series.  He brings such obvious knowledge and experience that bring you deeper and quicker into the American musical than any of the episodes.  But they had a lot of famous folks to get to and they made their choice.

Additional Performances from This is the Army, Carousel, and South Pacific

Disc 3

A featurette “Wicked: The Road to Broadway” which is exactly what you think it is.  More Interviews (again with Sondheim and dozens of others).  Additional Performances from Pacific Overtures, Sunday, and rehearsals from Wicked

"Broadway: The American Musical" is on sale October 16, 2012 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Michael A Nickles, Michael Kantor. Written by Martin Starger, Michael Kantor, Marc Fields, Laurence Maslon, JoAnn Young. Starring Julie Andrews.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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