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Hey, Mr. Producer

A super-comprehensive Broadway documentary with talking heads living and dead. Plus: Dorothy Allison, The Office, and wormholes.

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Scene from the musical Hair, 1968.  

Broadway loves nothing more than sending up balloons and ballyhoo to celebrate its gypsy self—its fabulous invalidism, its stage-speak slanguage of uptown, immigrant, ballpark, underworld, promoter hype, and pastrami sandwich, its floating-opera dream life of showgirls and hustlers, of sports and swells, of songwriters, gagmen, ragtimers, gossip columnists, admen, gangsters, and touts. Never mind a Great Depression, a Second World War, an aids epidemic, or a terrorist attack. Not only must the show go on, but there’s no business like it. And so we will be told all over again by Julie Andrews in Broadway: The American Musical (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, October 19, 20, and 21; 9 to 11 P.M.; Channel 13), as she escorts us through six hours of Michael Kantor’s documentary film, from the Ziegfeld Follies to Wicked and Rent

Unless you count David Merrick, the scariest moment occurs in the last installment, when we meet Michael Eisner in the ruins of the New Amsterdam Theatre, before it has been refurbished to house The Lion King. He hates the Times Square neighborhood, he tells us—pan to porn marquees and sex shops—but Rudy Giuliani promises to clean it up. And the CEO of Walt Disney, looking into the eyes of the Emperor of New York, has seen an offer he can’t refuse.

Until then, though, it’s fun and games and song and dance, from vaudeville and blackface (Al Jolson was not a nice person) to Tin Pan Alley and ragtime (everybody liked Fanny Brice), to Show Boat and miscegenation (Paul Robeson sings “Old Man River”), to Actors’ Equity, Prohibition, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (John Houseman remembers Orson Welles), to Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Fred Astaire, and Porgy & Bess (Gershwin in blackface?), to Agnes De Mille, Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and West Side Story, after which Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof would be ambushed by Hair, Cabaret, and Stephen Sondheim, before Andrew Lloyd Webber took over our ears and eyes and Argentinas, and we were spectacled to heat death.

If the songwriter stuff seems familiar, it’s because public television has already given us a separate series on the likes of Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, and Leonard Bernstein, with many of the same visuals. Where there are period snapshots and black-and-white film, Michael Kantor lets us look. But we are more often stuck in an ironic fallback position—the movie version of a Broadway musical, usually with different stars. Later, the irony reverses itself like some sinister raincoat, when Hollywood musicals are turned into Broadway stage productions. And while you won’t hear a single song sung all the way through in these six hours, at least it’s a bumper crop of talking heads. The historian Ann Douglas, for one instance, and the critic Margo Jefferson, for another, are equally at home with this nuanced subject matter. John Lahr, Frank Rich, Susan Stroman, Julie Taymor, and Sondheim himself speak up. And so devoted to our instruction are Brendan Gill and Al Hirschfeld that they come back from the dead.


There are still a couple of chances left to catch Cavedweller (Saturday, October 23, 2 to 3:45 P.M., and Wednesday, October 27, 6:45 to 8:30 P.M.; Showtime), a TV adaptation of the first half of Dorothy Allison’s novel about life after rock and roll. Kyra Sedgwick, a brittle wonder, all nerve ends turned to wind chimes, plays Delia Byrd, who used to sing “like the angel of the apocalypse,” as if she’d been “to the bottom of the river of life and come back full of the knowledge of death.” But that was back before her guitarist-lover, Randall (Kevin Bacon), cheated on her and then killed himself in a motorcycle crash. And so, with her 11-year-old daughter, Cissy (Regan Arnold), Delia leaves music, alcohol, and Los Angeles to go home to rural Georgia, where an abusive ex-husband and two baby girls she abandoned a decade ago aren’t exactly waiting for her—and where, when she opens her mouth to sing, she sounds less like an apocalyptic angel than Patsy Cline underwater.

I would have said “in a cave” instead of underwater, except that Showtime never does get to the caves in Cavedweller. In Allison’s novel, the caves beneath Cayro, Georgia, under the truck farms, convenience stores, biscuits, and Baptists, symbolized mystery and secrets, the lost or hidden, the unmapped and unknown, where “the dead dry up and last forever.” On cable TV, we stick to the surface: no caves, no grandchild, no lesbians, no manslaughter.

Which isn’t to say that what we get is negligible. Besides Sedgwick, Arnold also scores. While her Cissy isn’t permitted to grow up on the screen as she did on the page, reading Ursula Le Guin and Eudora Welty and learning Faulkner’s lesson about the past that keeps on happening, she is another of Allison’s all-seeing girl children, half caged bird, half periscope with glands. April Mullen and Vanessa Zima are likewise vivid and persuasive as the children Delia left behind. Aidan Quinn is a surprising Clint, the violent ex-husband who could no more break Delia than bend light, a man who’s now dying of cancer and who allows Delia to have her daughters back again only on condition that she nurse him to his death. Jill Scott and Sherilyn Fenn play the kind of female friends an adult woman needs to survive the men and children in her life. And it will probably not surprise you to hear that Sedgwick and Bacon have genuine chemistry.

Lisa Cholodenko directs from a screenplay by Anne Meredith, who also adapted Bastard Out of Carolina eight years ago. I don’t so much mind their mosey through the material as I do the abrupt curtain, after a lovely moment with music and hair, as if Dorothy Allison were in the uplift racket instead of survival training with a terrible swift sword. But the TV-movie version of Bastard was also guilty of omissions: a trawling hook; the trashing of Woolworth’s; 12-year-old Bone’s S&M fantasies; and Aunt Raylene’s lesbianism as an alternative to wretched marriage. And even though it was insulting for TV to decide in advance that we weren’t ready for the ferocious novel, still we came to care for these remarkable poor white women, these losers in the class and gender wars, and to understand what Bone meant when she said, “I wanted the way I felt to mean something and for everything in my life to change because of it.”


For those of you who really need to know what happened to David (Ricky Gervais) after he was fired, to Tim (Martin Freeman) after his heart was broken, and to Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) after his promotion to regional manager, not to mention Dawn (Lucy Davis), who quit Wenham-Hogg for furry Florida, The Office returns for an hourlong tell-all speaking-bitterness special (Thursday, October 23; 9 to 10 P.M.; BBC America), about which they don’t want me to spoil anything. In the immortal words of David himself: “When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question: How would the Lone Ranger handle this?” Hi, ho.


Farscape, one of the most popular space operettas ever to appear on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is why it was canceled, returns in The Peacekeeper Wars as a four-hour mini-series (Sunday, October 24; 3 to 7 P.M.; Sci-Fi), with the usual burden of wormholes and ray guns. It turns out that the displaced human astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) and his Woman Warrior Sebacean dream girl Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) aren’t dead after all, merely crystallized. But before they can legitimize their unborn baby, they must save the universe from alien redheads, piglets, punks, and lizards, all of whom look amazingly like eighties glitter-rock musicians. At least there’s some slapstick humor


Humor also redeems Thoughtcrimes (Tuesday, October 19; 4 to 6 P.M.; USA), where Navi Rawat turns out to be telepathic instead of schizophrenic, making her useful to Peter Horton and Joe Morton at the National Security Agency and to Joe Flanigan at the FBI when they need to thwart a terrorist assassination plot. Joan of Arc, Rasputin, and Nostradamus are all mentioned as having heard voices, too, although, presumably, only Joan heard them talking dirty


Anne Heche is also psychic, as well as agreeable, in The Dead Will Tell (Sunday, October 24; 9 to 11 P.M.; CBS). With the help of an antique engagement ring, she flashes back to a New Orleans murder scene that may or may not involve her boyfriend (Jonathan LaPaglia), his mother (Kathleen Quinlan), and/or a morose and misanthropic Chris Sarandon.


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