The much admired Teaching Company has several CD and DVD sets about classical music. However, they are all bested by “Great American Music: Broadway Musicals” on four DVDs. (The course number is 7318.) The instructor is Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute and a mighty fine teacher is he.
The 16 topics of 45 minutes each cover popular stage musicals from the Minstrel Shows that set the foundation, right through the Reviews and Book Musicals, and up to the “present,” which was 2006 when these talks were recorded.
Messenger is a double threat to all competition. First, he is a fine speaker with a good sense of humor, and he never talks down to his audience. Second, he is an excellent pianist who can illustrate a musical point simply and clearly (although his singing does not quite meet the level of his other talents).
His opening talk, “The Essence of the Musical,” prepares us for all that is to come. While apologizing for “The Minstrel Era,” he does point out the benefits those shows afforded to black artists who never would have otherwise attracted such large white audiences. The tale of the rise and downfall of two composers, one white and one black, is heartbreaking.
“The Evolution of the Verse/Chorus Song” explains the nature of all the popular songs that use a verse to set up the situation and a chorus that is repeated often enough so that the audience can join in.
“The Ragtime Years,” “The Vaudeville Era” and “Tin Pan Alley” continue to follow the fortunes of popular songs with respect to their formats and performances by different artists, many of whom are heard in vintage recordings.
Later on, special attention is given to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, who are contrasted; George Gershwin; and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter two ruled over the “Golden Age of Musical Theater (1950s)”; but even they could not withstand the new sounds when “Rock ‘n’ Roll Reaches Broadway.”
The last talk is about “Big Bucks and Long Runs,” a title that speaks for itself.
The PBS stations have recently rerun a series about Broadway Musicals with all sorts of Big Star commentators and spectacular videos. Messenger does it all and does it better with a podium and a piano. I have watched this set three times and heard it as many on my car tape player and now my iPod. I cannot recommend it too highly