Musical theater fans in the United States were offered a treat this past fall with the broadcast on public television of Broadway: The American Musical, a six-part documentary. The program used rare, vintage film and sound clips to highlight the 100 years of music, dance and comedy that combined to create one of America's indigenous art forms.
The Broadway musical -- synonymous with tapping feet, bright lights and lush music -- got its start at the turn of the 20th century, as huge waves of European immigrants were arriving at New York's Ellis Island. Documentary film maker Lawrence Maslon believes it was the unique atmosphere of immigrant New York that helped give rise to the American musical. "So many people passed through New York, including many immigrants -- everyone from Irving Berlin to Julie Andrews to Hugh Jackman," he says. "To make it in America you had to make it in New York. And the melting pot of New York and its accessibility to mass transit made it a natural to incubate something as broadly based as the American musical."
One of the earliest Broadway success stories was the rise of songwriter Irving Berlin. A Russian Jew who began his career as a singing waiter, Mr. Berlin would go on to write scores of hit songs and shows as well as the patriotic anthem, "God Bless America." But Michael Kantor, director of Broadway: The American Musical, says the entertainer who thought of himself as Broadway's biggest star was a singer who performed in blackface…Al Jolson. "He was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who grew up in Washington, D.C.," says Mr. Kantor, "and by adopting blackface and certain traditions from the [African-American] minstrel world, he became this hugely important performer who played on audiences' emotions. And he got his audience to cry about a mammy down south, which was so far away from his own experience."
The musicals of the early 20th century went on to serve as an inspiration for virtually all mass-media entertainment in America for more than half a century. "When radio came along in the 1920s," notes Mr. Kantor, "radio would naturally make great use of the Broadway melodies to send across the country. And then when talking pictures came along, they used Broadway stars and Broadway stories. And then the same thing happened with television in the 1950s. So in addition to New York being the incubator of this uniquely American art form, the form itself infiltrated our culture in really interesting ways."
Then, in the middle 1950s, a musical rumbling of a different kind began to take place. A new sound called rock and roll began to eclipse musical theater's dominance of pop music. While producers tried to stay current with rock musicals such as Hair, the so-called "Golden Age of Broadway" was clearly past.
But the creators of the documentary, Broadway: The American Musical say musical theater -- through its ups and downs, good shows and bad -- refuses to die. Revivals of classic Broadway shows are a mainstay of commercial and non-commercial theater, and current hit musicals are marketed and performed around the world. From the Ziegfeld Follies of the early 20th century that glorified the American girl…to today's blockbuster hit, The Producers…the Broadway musical continues to dazzle and amaze -- a living, breathing art, and a reflection of America at its most creative.
[In part two of this report, learn how Broadway survived the turbulent years of the 1950s and 60s to remain a major force today.]