When Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. arrives New York in 1893, the intersection of Broadway and 42nd is nobody’s idea of “the crossroads of the world.” But by 1913, “The Ziegfeld Follies really were an amalgamation of everything that was happening in America, in New York, at that time, ” says writer Philip Furia. “Flo Ziegfeld was like the Broadway equivalent of the melting pot itself.” Ziegfeld’s story introduces many of the era’s key figures: Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who becomes the voice of assimilated America; entertainers, like Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice and African American Bert Williams, who become America’s first “crossover” artists; and the brash Irish-American George M. Cohan, whose song-and-dance routines embody the energy of Broadway. This is also the story of the onset of a world war, and the Red Summer of 1919, when labor unrest sweeps the nation – and Broadway. Episode One culminates in Ziegfeld’s 1927 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s far-sighted masterpiece, Show Boat. “The history of the American musical theater is divided quite simply into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat, ” says writer Miles Kreuger.
The episode features interviews with Irving Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellen Barrett, Ziegfeld Follies girls Doris Eaton and Dana O’Connell, New Yorker critic Brendan Gill, theater artist Al Hirschfeld, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and Ziegfeld daughter Patricia Z. Stephenson. Highlights include newly-restored color footage of The Ziegfeld Follies and footage of Fanny Brice singing “My Man.”Episode Two: Syncopated City (1919-1933)
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell gives Broadway a nickname that becomes synonymous with all of New York: “It is the Big Apple, the goal of all ambitions, the pot of gold at the end of a drab and somewhat colorless rainbow….” With the advent of Prohibition and the Jazz Age, America convulses with energy and change, and nowhere is the riotous mix of classes and cultures more dramatically on display than Broadway. “There was this period in which everybody was leaping across borders and boundaries, ” says director/producer George C. Wolfe. “There was this incredible cross-fertilization, cultural appropriation.” While brash American women flapped their way to newfound freedoms, heroines of Broadway like Marilyn Miller become a testament to pluck and luck. It’s the age of “Whoopee” and the “Charleston, ” Runnin’ Wild and the George White Scandals. In 1921, a jazz show like no other arrives: Shuffle Along, which features a rich, rousing score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, reopening Broadway’s doors to black talent. Unique talents like the Marx Brothers and Al Jolson – a Jewish immigrant and Prohibition’s biggest star – rocket to stardom. The Gershwin brothers, the minstrels of the Jazz Age, bring a “Fascinating Rhythm” to an entire nation. Innovative songwriting teams like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ignite a new age of bright, clever lyrics with the massive hit “Manhattan.” But as the Roaring Twenties come to a close, Broadway’s Jazz Age suffers the one-two punch of the “talking picture” and the stock market crash, triggering a massive talent exodus to Hollywood and putting an end to Broadway’s feverish expansion.
The episode features interviews with actor Carol Channing, Gershwin sister Frances Gershwin Godowsky, Al Jolson & Co. creator Stephen Mo Hanan, critic Margo Jefferson, writer Miles Krueger, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, radio host/music critic Jonathan Schwartz, theater historians Max Wilk and Robert Kimball, and director/producer George C.Wolfe. Highlights include rare performance footage of composer Eubie Blake and a specially animated sequence of Rodgers and Hart’s 1927 hit “Thou Swell” from A Connecticut Yankee.Episode Three: