STAGE TO SCREENS: Michael Kantor and PBS' "Broadway: The American Musical"

STAGE TO SCREENS: Michael Kantor and PBS' "Broadway: The American Musical" This month we speak to Michael Kantor, who created, directed, co-wrote (with Marc Fields, JoAnn Young and Laurence Maslon) and co-produced the six-hour series, "Broadway: The American Musical." Hosted by Julie Andrews, it will be shown on PBS in three parts: October 19, 20 and 21. The documentary, in my opinion, ranks as a musical counterpart to "Angels in America."
Julie Andrews, host of
Julie Andrews, host of "Broadway: The American Musical" Photo by Marty Sohl/Thirteen/WNET

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"I've always wanted to create a documentary on the history of Broadway," Michael Kantor told me for my April 2003 column. "Musical theatre is uniquely American; the musical started on Broadway." Then a work in progress, the finished product (a ten-year project for Kantor) is lush, intelligent and — most of all — vastly entertaining. While musical-theatre fans may be familiar with much of the material, it's similar to attending a Barbara Cook concert; you've heard some songs before, but not the way that Cook does them.

Most appealing is that Kantor was able to strike a balance between entertaining an audience that occasionally attends musicals and yet not alienating the buffs. Sure, everyone recognizes Julie Andrews — beloved by both Average Jo(e) and aficionado — but how many people are that familiar with Stephen Mo Hanan (who speaks about Al Jolson, whom he played in Jolson & Company)?

"The goal was always to appeal to viewers from eight to eighty," notes Kantor, "and try to be true to Broadway. If we're using a Fred Astaire film clip, he's doing a song he'd sung on Broadway. He was reprising it in front of the camera. People would say, 'You're not using Liza Minnelli's 'Cabaret' performance [of the title song], and I'd say, 'No, we've got [a clip of] Jill Haworth; she did it on Broadway.' That's our story. When you see Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine doing their little bit [a snippet of 'Sue Me'] from Guys and Dolls, that's the real McCoy. That's one of my favorite finds, by the way; it's from the BBC, when the show went to London [after the original Broadway production]. Time and again, I was challenging myself, asking 'What would Hal Prince think? Or Stephen Sondheim or John Kander? What would people who lived this think?'"

Also incorporated are numerous movie and TV clips, home movies and archival footage. Starting in 1996, Kantor conducted many interviews; among them: Al Hirschfeld, Carol Channing, Mel Brooks, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, Joel Grey, John Raitt, June Havoc, Patricia Morison, Sheldon Harnick, Michael Kidd, Harold Prince, Tommy Tune, Arthur Laurents, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Harvey Fierstein, Jerome Chodorov, Peter Stone, John Lahr and Brendan Gill. To have Julie Andrews host was, observes Kantor, "a dream come true. She's a great storyteller. She brings emotion to things that need it. For Julie Andrews to walk out on the stage of the New Amsterdam [to film a segment] and for Michael Kantor, documentary filmmaker, to say, 'Action.' Well, it just doesn't get better than that!"

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Entitled "Give My Regards to Broadway: 1893-1927" and "Syncopated City: 1919-1933," the first two hours profile George M. Cohan, Bert Williams, Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Eubie Blake, George Gershwin, Eddie Cantor and Rodgers and Hart. There are clips of Ziegfeld Follies shows (in color), Show Boat and James Cagney (portraying Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the 1942 musical biography, incorrectly listed as a 1943 picture). Also represented: Marilyn Miller, the Marx Brothers, Ray Bolger, Bill Robinson, Bobby Clark, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Bert Lahr, and (Lou) Clayton, (Eddie) Jackson, and (Jimmy) Durante.

"I Got Plenty O' Nuttin': 1930-1942" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin': 1943-1960" are the third and fourth hours, which include scenes of how a Broadway song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," reflected the nation's mood during the Depression; profiles of Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Cole Porter and Fred Astaire; June Havoc recalling Pal Joey; a look at This is the Army (remembered by Irving Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett) and Porgy and Bess (with comments by the original stars, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, plus how Stephen Sondheim rates the show). Sondheim also reminisces about his reaction to the opening night of Carousel, and how (years later) his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, inscribed a picture to him. There are numerous clips, including Oklahoma!, Carousel, On the Town, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Bye Bye Birdie, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music.

"Tradition: 1957-1979" and "Putting It Together: 1980-Present" are the final two hours. Included are clips of West Side Story, Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Hair, Company, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, The Producers, Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage aux Folles, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Rent, Hairspray and Wicked. There are remembrances of Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and David Merrick; rehearsal footage of Ethel Merman in Gypsy; a profile of Cameron Mackintosh; the Disney invasion; home movies of Jonathan Larson; and the renaming of the Martin Beck Theatre for Al Hirschfeld.

As the final credits roll, Kantor chose to use a clip of Danny Kaye performing the patter song "Tschaikovsky," the number that brought him fame in the musical Lady in the Dark. "People wondered why," states Kantor. "The series is over, and as all the names are whizzing by on the screen, we have Danny Kaye rattling off all these Russian composers' names." I mention that Kaye ties in with host Julie Andrews. In 1947, when the comedian appeared at London's famed Palladium and reigned as the toast of Britain, Andrews (then 12-year-old Julia Wells) appeared on the bill.

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In addition to the documentary, there's a Teacher's Guide (published by Robert A. Miller) going to 15,000 secondary schools across the country. "It's phenomenal," Kantor remarks. "I'm so proud of it. In the first episode, we have Irving Berlin's song, 'My New York.' I couldn't find a recording of it, and I had Chip Zien record it for us: 'Every nation, it seems,/ Sailed across with their dreams/ To my New York...' It goes into the ethnicities that settled in New York. On the educational guide, one of the things we're giving people [on a CD that contains six selections] is the song with the lyrics, and then just the melody, so [the student] can write about their city to an Irving Berlin melody."

There's also a companion book, which Kantor co-authored with Laurence Maslon (for Bulfinch Press; in stores Oct. 13). Says Kantor, "There's never been a Broadway book like it. People who know nothing about Broadway history can enjoy it, and so can people who want to read Stephen Sondheim's essay on what makes Jerome Kern a unique composer, or a [George] Gershwin essay on jazz." Available Oct. 12 will be a three-tape VHS set, a three-disc DVD set (one of which contains five hours of bonus interviews and performances not seen on the TV series) from Paramount Home Entertainment and PBS Home Video, plus a 5-CD boxed set featuring over 100 recordings (on Columbia Broadway Masterworks and Decca Broadway). There's also a CD of 21 selections (in stores Oct. 5).

The series' aim, continues Kantor, "is not to just highlight famous performers and creators. We're placing things in historical and social contexts, and showing that Broadway has been a seminal part of American culture. As Yip Harburg says [in the series], 'Songs are the pulse of a nation's heart, the fever chart of its health.' We tried to use the songs and the stories and the biographies of Broadway to tell America's story." Concludes Michael Kantor, "I tried to make [the documentary] as entertaining as a Broadway musical."

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in spring 2005.