PBS Distribution recently released two series on Blu-ray and DVD:  “Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl” and “Broadway: The American Musical.”Watching the latter, I couldn’t help but think that it couldn’t have been any better if Burns had tackled this one as well.

Once director Michael Kantor gets past a series intro that goes on too long, “Broadway: The American Musical” is a breezy history of music on the stage in America, from its wicked (we’re talking frontal nudity) beginnings in Vaudeville and the Ziegfield Follies to “Wicked” the musical. And who better for a tour guide than the amiable Broadway veteran Julie Andrews?

The series aired on PBS in six installments in October 2004, with each episode on Blu-ray running close to an hour. Fans of musicals will appreciate the wealth of photos and film clips that move this along at a pace more appropriate for Broadway than Burns.

If there’s a general complaint, it would be that due to the scarcity of film, many of the later musicals depicted are actually clips from the movie versions. But that’s of little consequence, because the storyline is strong enough to cushion the shock.

Two episodes are included on each disc.

“Give My Regards to Broadway (1893-1927)goes to the very roots of American theater—Vaudeville—and the famed Ziegfield Follies, which introduced “histories” using scantily clothed Ziegfield girls, and tableaus and musical numbers characterized by exotic costumes and headpieces that would find a home 50 years later in Las Vegas. We see how minstrel shows and blackface were a part of American theater, and how an African American named Bert Williams used the racist shows for his own political purpose. And, of course, for anyone who’s seen “Funny Girl,” we get a segment on the popular Fanny Brice, the Ziegfield Follies headliner who was a triple threat: a dancer, a comedian, and a singer.

Tin Pan Alley gets some air time as well, but the focus is mostly on Irving Berlin and the effect that he had on the industry. In fact, this series seems to be organized on the principle of influence. The most influential performers and writers and composers are featured. We see too how WWI changed the look of things, and how George M. Cohan went from Vaudeville to America’s anthem writer, with Broadway the catalyst. The segment ends with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Show Boat” posited as a changing point for American theater in that it featured songs that advanced a linear and emotional plot and tackled serious themes in a cohesive narrative.

“Syncopated City (1919-1933)” zooms in on the Roaring Twenties, with George and Ira Gershwin making the leap from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and Harlem nightclubs influencing such entertainments as Eubie Blake’s musical “Shuffle Along.” The second half of this segment is largely devoted to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who created hit after hit.

“I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (1930-1942)” offers a time capsule that captures the feel and the headlines of the Great Depression and World War II. Bing Crosby gets a mention for his song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and Ethel Merman is showcased as a distinctive voice (think gratingly throaty, not sung from the diaphragm), while Cole Porter brought sophistication to Broadway and George Gershwin drew inspiration from the Deep South to produce “Porgy and Bess,” renowned for its all-black cast. Other influences from the last episode make an appearance, such as Rodgers and Hart (“Pal Joey”) and Irving Berlin (“This Is the Army”).

“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (1943-1960)”gives new partners Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” credit for advancing the musical with its emphasis on story over music and its high-stepping choreography. “Carousel” is also featured (though I have to admit I always thought it one of their weaker efforts) because it’s a downer of a musical. There’s more Merman with “Annie Get Your Gun” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” more Porter with “Kiss Me Kate,” and more Rodgers and Hammerstein with “South Pacific.” Wise guys make their first appearance with Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” and then Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe close out the episode with two of their most famous shows, “My Fair Lady” (starring series narrator Andrews) and “The Sound of Music.”

“Tradition (1957-1979)” takes its title from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is showcased as a quaint look back, yet a time of transition during this period of political upheaval. “Hair” rocks it with nudity and an all-rock score, and Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein team up to create a musical about street toughs, with a “Romeo and Juliet” twist in “West Side Story.” Other musicals showcased are “Cabaret,” with its emphasis on atmosphere over story; Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” with its anthology approach to storytelling; Bob Fosse’s “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago,” which took “Cabaret’s” more sensual elements even further, and “Sweeney Todd” introducing a horrific element into the theater.

“Putting It Together (1980-2004)” goes from “42nd Street” to “Wicked,” with stops in between that allow audiences to see segments from “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “La Cage Aux Follies,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Rent.” It’s an anything goes era, which, if anything, depends on the bigger and better maxim to get people to come to the theater when other media—movies, television, concerts, sporting events—beckon.

Put them all together, and you have an enjoyable romp through the history of an American institution that’s fascinating even for non-theater lovers.

“Broadway: The American Musical” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, with the transfer to three 50GB discs looking impressive, especially given the rough and variant vintage source materials. The touchstone, of course, is Andrews, who appears on camera periodically in front of curtains and lights that reinforce how the precision and level of detail. There’s no blur on the lights, no excessive grain on the curtain, and the colors look rich and full. Producers fought the impulse to over-process the material, trusting that the public would be appreciative. And yes, this “public” is.

The producers opted for an English LPCM 2.0 soundtrack, no doubt because so much of the source material was mono, but also because 2.0 of anything lends itself to a so-called “concert style” of sound, with everything coming from the stage. It totally fits the material, though audiences accustomed to a 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack will have to adjust.

You get some sense of how great an undertaking this series was when you look at the bonus features, which are, for the most part, outtakes and unused materials that didn’t make it into the film. Included here are more than three hours of interviews about Broadway from people who appeared in the film: Mary Ellin Berlin Barrett, Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Andre De Shields, Fred Ebb, Doris Eaton, Harvey Fierstein, Joel Grey, Marvin Hamlisch, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jerry Herman, Al Hirschfeld, John Kander, Arthur Laurents, Cameron Mackintosh, Donna McKechnie, Jerry Orbach, Hal Prince, Frank Rich, Chita Rivera, Vincent Sardi Jr., Stephen Sondheim, Peter Stone, Michael Tilson Thomas, Doris Eaton Travis, and Ben Vereen.

Also included are close to some 53 minutes of performance footage that didn’t make the cut, plus “Wicked: The Road to Broadway” (16 min.) that profiles that musical. There’s a lot here for fans of Broadway musicals—a long, but enjoyable walk down memory lane.

Bottom line: 
“Broadway: The American Musical” is a terrific documentary that entertains and informs in equal measure.