2004: Oct. 19-21
Season’s hot ticket on PBS: Broadway
Michael Kantor, director and producer of Broadway: The American Musical, a six-hour documentary extravaganza PBS will unveil in October, was taking a cab ride through then-seedy and downtrodden Times Square in the early ’90s and musing about what his next project should be. A maker of historical documentaries, he observed that it’s easier to make films about subjects that are dead.
“I asked myself, ‘What’s dead? Broadway’s dead,’” he recounted.
What he found in his research, of course, is that Broadway and the musical comedies that are its homegrown and most characteristic diversions are not dead — even though critics write their obituary every generation or so. Instead, the output of the New York theater district changes with the times.
Broadway, which will air in two-hour installments over three consecutive nights beginning Oct. 19, is exactly the kind of painstakingly researched, lavishly produced documentary that PBS likes to trumpet only it can pull off. Kantor devoted 10 years of his life to the series, which he estimates cost just over $7 million. (The project is a co-production of Kantor’s Ghost Light Films, WNET, NHK and BBC in association with Carlton International; WNET’s Jac Venza and David Horn are executive producers.)
In the 100 years since New York’s Longacre Square was rechristened Times Square, critics claimed that talkies, then TV, rock ’n’ roll, urban decay or British imports and finally 9/11 have killed the American musical on Broadway. But as Kantor’s work illustrates, after each blow it roars back to life like a comic book superhero. Its mutations reflect trends in American society, Kantor believes. The fact that corporate sponsors such as Disney and Universal Pictures are now becoming major players (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked”) says a lot about how our society views art, for example.
The Ken Burns treatment
When PBS airs any epic documentary, comparisons to the Ken Burns oeuvre are inevitable. For Broadway they may be especially apt: Kantor worked for both Ken (The West) and Ric Burns (New York) before going solo.
WNET’s Venza does not object to the suggestion that the series is giving the Ken Burns treatment to Broadway musicals. He said WNET contemplated doing a history of Broadway musicals in the ’80s but “no one could figure out how to do [the early years] because it was so long ago, and there were no recordings.” Then Ken Burns’ Civil War showed that riveting television can be made from photographs, letters and archival materials, without resorting to cheesy re-enactments.
The important thing Kantor learned from the Burns brothers was not so much about how to lovingly pan sepia photos while playing a tinny recording, he said, but rather how to assemble a long-form documentary —“There’s a different craft to making something that runs 6 to 8 hours than a 90-minute special.” Besides, there was an astonishing number of early newsreels and performers’ homemade movies available, as well as commercial records made by theatrical stars singing their big hits, he discovered. Many of the earliest Hollywood films were faithful adaptations of Broadway productions featuring the same stars; Kantor uses a clip of Fred Astaire singing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee that reprised his Broadway role of two years earlier, for example. The Ed Sullivan Show proved to be a gold mine for Kantor, as the host loved to showcase the original artists from hit musicals of the ’50s and ’60s.
Public television might not have been able to make a series so rich in archival material if WNET had not built its decades-long relationships with the estates of composers George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others. Many of these musical giants have been profiled on American Masters or their works aired on Great Performances.
Venza explained that he and Kantor gathered representatives from the important estates together and told them, “We’ve never made your estates very rich, but we’ve reminded America of the richness of your material,” and got them all to agree to what he described as “a favored-nations per-minute fee. . . . So there was no negotiating, no having to make choices on what to include in the story based on whether we could afford it or not.”
“We told them if they were going to charge us a ton of money, there was no way we could make a series,” Kantor added. “They agreed because they trusted Channel 13 [WNET].” Once the big names came aboard, virtually everyone else cooperated.
The Shubert Organization (which runs 17 Broadway theaters) and several philanthropic arms of theatrical families, such as the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Philanthropic Fund and the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, provided underwriting. Kantor notes, however, that WNET still seeks a corporate sponsor for the series.
“Most books and shows about the American musical theater are about
the musical part. This is the first series about the American part,”
says Laurence Maslon, an associate arts professor at New York University,
who co-wrote two episodes and the series’ companion book with Kantor.
All of the musicals featured had to be not only important works but also had to convey important elements of Americana, he said.
“As we were sifting through this incredible amount of material, we were always asking, ‘Does it do double duty?’ Is ‘Of Thee I Sing’ not only a great musical by Gershwin but also say something about the Great Depression?” said Maslon. “ … ‘La Cage aux Folles’ was an important show not just because it featured gay men but because it was onstage at the same time AIDS made an appearance.”
Maslon was senior consultant of a team of scholarly advisors to Kantor on the project, which received funds from both the National Endowment for the Humanities (approximately $1.1 million) and National Endowment for the Arts (more than $400,000). CPB also kicked in more than $1 million.
“Any time you get an NEH grant, it’s predicated on scholarship. These consultants are helpful in so many ways,” said Kantor. “Not only do they know the material, the history, better than you do as a filmmaker. . . these guys steer you away from the gossipy biography that informs so many cable programs and keep you on track to proving the themes and stories and situations that speak to American history.”
To illustrate how the panel shaped his work, Kantor described changes in episode one, which covers 1893-1927. The episode originally had Irving Berlin at its center. “But as we sat around talking, they said, ‘you know, Florenz Ziegfeld is a better spine for the episode. He’s not a composer or entertainer, but he amalgamates all the different strands of the musical. He puts them all in his shows — he had Berlin writing for him, Fanny Brice performing, [African-American entertainer] Bert Williams starring in his revolutionary minstrel shows.’ So we rewrote the first episode.”
Kantor said the fact that the project got both NEH and NEA funding (producers usually get money from one or the other, not both) “speaks to the importance of the Broadway musical in American culture.” Musicals gave America the Charleston and its anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” They helped break down racial barriers and inspired labor reforms. They chastised presidents, defied censors and enriched our language with phrases like “everything’s coming up roses.” Even people who think they don’t know musicals hum along with Broadway standards piped in the malls.
“Many people think of America as giving jazz to the world, but what people in Europe mean by jazz are these pop standards that came out of the musicals,” says Philip Furia, chair of the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Furia was both an advisor and on-camera talking head for the series.
Dwight Blocker Bowers, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and another project advisor and filmed interviewee, said Kantor and his staff deserve credit for the rare material they unearthed, such as Ethel Waters performing “Suppertime” on an obscure 1950 NBC television broadcast.
Blocker Bowers also finds the series remarkable for the interviews Kantor got from many celebrities. Carol Channing doesn’t just talk about “Hello, Dolly!” he notes, but also about how she was affected by seeing Waters perform on stage. “A number of performers throughout the videos surprise us with their knowledge of the Broadway musical heritage and their place in the heritage,” he said.
Beloved stage and screen entertainer Julie Andrews hosts the series, briefly introducing each episode. She is also interviewed for her memories of starring in “My Fair Lady.”
Competition from an ex-WNET staffer
If it’s celebrity reminiscences you’re after, there’s a competing documentary now making the rounds of the art-house cinema circuit that has a much heavier dose of them. Broadway: The Golden Age, a feature-length film by Rick McKay, a former segment producer on WNET’s City Arts who now runs his own production company, was released earlier this summer. It focuses on Broadway in the ’40s through the ’60s and covers nonmusical plays as well as musicals.
“We literally met at one event, introduced ourselves, and we both pointed our fingers at the other saying, ‘so, you’re the one. . . ,’” McKay said about meeting Kantor. He said he set out to make a film “that was not the traditional PBS documentary” and didn’t want to “jump through the hoops” that applying for an NEH grant would require.
McKay, Kantor and the scholars interviewed for this story all agreed that
the two documentaries are different enough from one another that they will
not diminish each other’s audiences or hurt the planned DVD sales come
Christmas time. There might be some confusion of the two projects for people
doing Google searches, McKay predicted.
“If anything, it [McKay’s film] might actually bring people who wouldn’t watch our series to watch it,” said Venza. “I’m so delighted when I find one more person in the world who’s as enthusiastic [about the performing arts] as I am.”
PBS plans major “pop-out” promotional treatment for the series, says Carrie Johnson, senior director, primetime publicity, for PBS. In addition to purchasing the usual print and broadcast advertising that pop-out designation affords a series, PBS has an arrangement with Ticketmaster to insert ticket-like ads for the series into envelopes with all ticket purchases for performing arts events the month prior to broadcast, she said. Street teams dressed as famous characters from musicals also will distribute these “tickets” in five cities.
So who do Venza and Kantor imagine will watch Broadway? Ratings for the annual Tony awards show have been abysmal of late. In 2004, only 6.6 million tuned in for the CBS broadcast — its lowest number ever and barely half of the number of people who actually went to a Broadway show last year. It may also be an indication that Broadway acts simply don’t play well on television.
Venza, who has made a career out of bringing live arts performances to television, sees these types of programs as important contributions to civilized American culture. Because of its scholarship, “this program is only going to become more valuable” over time, he said. “If I were to select subjects on the quality of ratings, we would be duplicating the people swapping wives” reality shows.
He predicts those who have loved musicals ever since they were cast in “The King and I” in high school or were captivated by a local stage production of “South Pacific” will tune in.
“It’s meant to reacquaint audiences with the shows they loved as well as introduce Broadway musicals to a new generation who knows nothing of the charms of all these great shows,” says Kantor. “The music itself is everywhere — in elevators, school gymnasiums, the community center, in commercial jingles. It’s about introducing people to that music and where it’s really from.”
Web page posted Aug. 30, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee