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Broadway Comes to PBS This Month
November 6, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

Each year, PBS gives us a brief burst of Broadway.

For several Fridays, it has a mix of musicals and plays and such. Most years, that's important for those of us who live far from New York; this year – no Broadway, no tours – it's important for everyone.

That starts Friday, with James Corden in a wild comedy. It follows with a documentary, a musical rerun, and a Lea Salonga concert, peppered with Broadway and movie hits.

There are flaws here and there. The comedy and the musical both suffer from weak scripts; one is salvaged (mostly) by gifted actors, the other by rousing, Irving Berlin songs.

But the documentary is extraordinary – a rich, 56-year, six-nation journey. And Salonga is magnificent.

Each show is at 9 p.m. ET, under the Great Performances banner (check local listings). They are:

Nov. 6, One Man, Two Guvnors
Francis is a jobless chap who is suddenly working for Roscoe and Stanley. He wants to keep them apart and collect double pay. Except that Roscoe is actually Rachel (his twin sister) in disguise, and Rachel is Stanley's lover.

If this sounds silly, well, that's expected: This is based on a 1743 show in the "commedia dell'arte" style, which means an improvised type of comedy. However, by modern standards, it seems to mean terribly broad humor, much of it delivered at high volume.

We would forget it in a moment except that it stars James Corden.

Most Americans know Corden, now 42, as a terrific late-night host, but before that, he was a British TV and stage star. This is the U.S. debut of a British show that was taped in 2011.

Corden perfectly plays the genial oaf – clumsy, well-meaning, slightly scheming. His schemes fail, but we keep rooting for him. He drew an Olivier nomination in London and then won a Tony in New York.

The rest of the cast is also skilled – in an over-the-top, overbearing way. We mostly shrug at the show and marvel at Corden.

Nov. 13, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (top)
This is a documentary, but it offers big chunks of the Fiddler on the Roof musical, via the movie, the Broadway show, and shows in England, Canada, Japan, and more.

A show that some people fretted would be "too Jewish" has become universal. We see it performed by Black teens in Brooklyn and by college students in Thailand. We see Lin-Manuel Miranda (Puerto Rican), and his father-in-law (Dominican) perform parts of it at his engagement and wedding parties.

And we hear stories of the early struggles – the road failure in Detroit, the moderate reviews in New York – and then the waves of approval. Fiddler won nine Tonys and was, for a time, the longest-running show in Broadway history.

The film skillfully blends vintage interviews and new ones. We hear from producer Hal Prince (who died last year), and from composer Jerry Bock and writer Joseph Stein (both of whom died in 2010).

We also hear lyricist Sheldon Harnick and Austin Pendleton, 80, who played a young suitor in that first production. We hear from people in recent casts and from the show's friends – Miranda, Stephen Sondheim, and more. Fiddler, it seems, has a lot of friends.

Nov. 20: Holiday Inn
This would seem like a shaky venture – a country resort that's only open on the holidays.

That was the theme for a 1942 movie that let Irving Berlin show his range. He had already written Easter Parade and White Christmas, and he added more.

Much later, it became a theater piece that injected other Berlin hits, including Blue Skies and Cheek to Cheek. That version had a brief Broadway run in 2016 and was shown on PBS over the following years. Here's a rerun – it's bright, zesty, hummable – but with a thoroughly silly script.

Nov. 27: Lea Salonga in Concert
Salonga was 18 – already a stage star in her native Philippines, when she starred in Miss Saigon. She promptly won Olivier and Tony awards.

Now, 31 years later, she has a deep backlog. For this concert – in the Sydney Opera House, with her brother conducting – she does songs from shows she was in, onstage (Miss Saigon, Les MiserablesOnce on This Island) and as a voice for movie heroines (Mulan, Aladdin).

But there's much more here – songs from Broadway classics (Music Man, She Loves Me) and even from the 2017 movie The Greatest Showman.

Salonga combines vocal power and intimate emotion. It's a reminder of why we need Broadway – and anywhere else that delivers great performances.

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