15 October 2007 | classicalsteve
First Parts and Last Parts Outstanding -- Middle Part Not Terribly Provocative
"Broadway: The American Musical" depicts the intense and competitive world of the entertainment industry in the first two parts and the last two parts. The first two chapters dealt honestly with racial discrimination and stereotypes while the last parts focused on the changing face of The Great White Way. However, the middle chapters, featuring Rogers and Hammerstein, portray an idyllic world. By the 1930's, producers appear to love everyone, talent was instantly recognized, song writers wrote instant hits, and audiences were enthralled with nearly everything they saw on stage. According to this documentary, Rogers and Hammerstein appear to have an open door policy in which anyone could walk in and pitch a musical idea, and if it was good, they would green-light the project. Talent was passed around and recommended to rival producers and shows. And song writers disappear for a weekend and return with hit songs without breaking a sweat. In short, it's the kind of world you often find depicted in a typical Broadway musical from between 1930 and about 1960. A kind of self-contained utopia.
The last chapter elucidated some of the behind-the-scenes madness that is integral to any Broadway production. But for some reason, the middle chapters focusing on the 1940's and 1950's avoided most the development and production mayhem. Instead, the narrative stayed with the successes which are the musicals that are still performed today from that era. The difficulty is talking about the struggles, the failures, the set-backs, the back-biting, and the behind-the-scenes ruthlessness that characterizes much of the entertainment industry, be it Hollywood or Broadway. That is where the real story is, and this documentary tells a very rosy tale where everybody has a happy ending. It's more about how the general public views Broadway, but not how it really is.
Not until the final chapter does the documentary explain that every Broadway production is a huge financial risk for the producers and investors. Because the rewards for a hit are so tremendous and the money lost devastating for a failure, the entertainment industry has a heartless cruelty that is always kept at arm's length from the public like skeletons in a production storage closet. The documentary lacks in-depth discussions of the origins of many of the most famous musicals from the 50's and 60's, with the notable exception of "Porgy and Bess". Aside from "Porgy" I wanted to know more about the writers' inspiration for many of the stories, how did they convince fellow song writers and producers to take a chance, how did they secure financing, who was in charge of the investments, what hurdles did they have to overcome, how did they find the talent, and how did they convince certain talent to commit to the material. Every piece of the puzzle must synthesize to manifest a hit, from the writing to the talent to the staging, and these elements need equal treatment. Some of the best stories are probably found during the developmental stage of any production. Most people also don't realize that the vast majority of projects never get past the developmental stage.
Much of what happened behind-the-scenes to realize a project from merely an idea to a full stage production is glossed over in favor of expounding upon how successful certain musicals were and how many weeks or years they ran on Broadway. In all fairness, a few bits and pieces are exposed, such as a video clip of Rex Harrison preparing for "My Fair Lady" in which he begins ranting that he won't be able to succeed at the part because of the difficulty of the music. Another tells the story of George Gershwin visiting the African-American communities of the deep south to get inspiration for "Porgy and Bess". Unfortunately, these insightful discourses are few and far between which made me clamor for more.
Because of the lack of in-depth story-telling, the middle sections of "Broadway: The American Musical" were somewhat disappointing. They come off more like a survey, akin to a musical revue, than a history of the phenomenon that is The Great White Way. However, the first and last sections are worth the price of admission. Sometimes the darkest stories are where the human drama unfolds, which has often been an area that Broadway Musicals avoid. Instead of a revue, I would have liked more of the story.