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The Broadway Home Companions

The book and CD versions of Broadway: The American Musical fill in many of the gaps in the PBS documentary. logo
If you were disappointed with Broadway: The American Musical, the documentary that aired on PBS last week and is now available on DVD, here's some good news: The film's companion materials surpass it in terms of usefulness and appropriateness. And if neither the book of the same title by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon (Bullfinch Press, $60, 470 pp.) nor the five-CD compilation of musical theater recordings are perfect, they provide more of the kind of detail and information that should have been in the documentary itself.

The book, an imposing coffee-table volume, covers much of the same ground as the documentary and even approaches its subject matter in the same way. Like the show, it's organized into six sections delineating specific time periods in the Broadway musical theater's evolution (although, here, the chapter covering 1893-1919 is titled "A Real Live Nephew of My Uncle Sam" instead of "Give My Regards to Broadway"). It features many of the same photos along with transcriptions of the interviews seen and heard in the film. These quotes from experts and eyewitnesses are often printed in bold and accompany the text, providing additional flavor or insight as to what's being discussed.

The downside of all of this is that there's a considerable amount of repeat information; those who've seen the documentary and are well-versed in musical theater history may feel that they don't need the book at all. But for the beginner or even the intermediate-level fan, the book takes great pains to expand and develop many ideas that the film only touched on. While it still doesn't explore any one subject in great depth, it provides a broader spectrum of information about the places, people, shows, and songs on which the American musical theater was built. Each of the six chapters has five special sections to augment the text: "Who's Who," an in-depth examination of the careers and achievements of such Broadway stars as Fanny Brice, the Astaires, Ethel Waters, Alfred Drake, Angela Lansbury, and Nathan Lane; "Broadway And," a look at how the Great White Way worked with such other entities as Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, and television; "Spotlight On," detailing a major show or two from each time period; "Words and Music," examining significant songs (these include "Bill, "Ol' Man River," and "Broadway Baby"); and "Archives," containing extensive transcriptions of interviews conducted for the documentary and writings from other sources. All of this aids Kantor and Maslon in offering a much fuller and more informative experience than the documentary could provide, and some important subjects that were slighted in or omitted from the film -- e.g., operetta, cast recordings, Gypsy -- receive their due here.

The book also has a number of other noteworthy features. A chronology of major shows that opened between 1903 and 2004 (with award information) serves as a handy if somewhat sketchy reference guide. A selected bibliography illuminates a few of the many sources that helped build Broadway: The American Musical. And, perhaps most interesting of all, maps of the theater district from both 1928 and 2004 offer a startling visual example of how much the environs of Broadway have changed over the years. There is some really fine writing in the book (the brief "Exit Music" essay, for example, beautifully captures the uniquely evanescent quality of musical theater) plus a number of gorgeous, rarely seen photos, many of them in full color (note the two-page spread of West Side Story's "Dance at the Gym," pages 268-269, and the jaw-dropping photo of Jean Darling, John Raitt, and Jan Clayton on Carousel's carousel, page 209).

Some might object to the use of modern photos in the book's earliest pages; Hairspray and the revivals of Nine, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are displayed along with full-page shots of George M. Cohan, Times Square, and Ziegfeld Follies performer Margaret Morris. Also, some typographical errors have crept in: "[Brian Stokes Mitchell's] big break came in 1998 when he played Coalhouse Walker, a turn-of-the-century black man who is provoked into becoming an urban terrorist, in the musical version of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime in 1997." Huh? And who exactly is Kristen Chenoweth? But though such mistakes are annoying and unfortunate, they don't do much to distract from the impressive collection of images and information that the book contains.

Meanwhile, the interested novice should absolutely consider the five-CD boxed set ($47.99) a smart investment. Containing some 106 songs, it's an outstanding, representative sample of theater music from the early 1900s to the present. If one has never heard Al Jolson sing "Swanee" (from Sinbad), Fanny Brice sing "My Man" (The Ziegfeld Follies of 1921), Gertrude Lawrence sing "Someone to Watch Over Me" (Oh, Kay!), or Walter Huston movingly speak-sing his way through "September Song" (Knickerbocker Holiday), here they are.

And that's just the first disc! With dozens of other vital selections encompassing a full range of stars and musical styles that have been the foundation of Broadway, this is a stellar compilation -- one of the best, if not the best, of its kind. Serious cast recording collectors probably already have most of these tracks several times over, but if you're missing most of the songs on the first disc (1903-1943), this set is a necessity. (Note: There's also a one-disc, 21-track edition available for $13.99, but it's poorly balanced in terms of song selections. This is one case where you really should splurge; the five-disc version is more than worth the money.)

A few quibbles can be made with the selections on the complete set. Is Joel Grey's rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway" the definitive performance of that song? And was it really necessary to include one cut each from the cast albums of the 21st-century megahits The Producers, Hairspray, and Wicked? Still, as is the case with the companion book, what's good about these discs more than balances out any imperfections


[To access Matthew Murray's review of the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical, click here.]

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