“Once upon a time,” says Julie Andrews, spinning a dark but true fairy tale, “commercial TV actually created exciting new musical works, like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. By the early 1970s, that golden age was already a memory and there was no place for classical music or dance or to experience a great dramatic actor or even a Broadway showstopper.”
But then along came PBS — like Sir Lancelot rescuing Queen Guinevere. “It was in that bleak time,” continues Andrews, speaking before a packed house at New York’s Lincoln Center, “that Great Performances began. Its simple premise was to provide a home for the world’s greatest artists, a showcase for the best in music, drama and dance.”
That home has always had a big roof, presenting not just the works of Shakespeare, Beethoven and Wagner, but contemporary playwrights, modern dance troupes, Broadway performers, jazz musicians and interpreters of the Great American Songbook. The welcome mat has even been rolled out for rock stars.
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Andrews — who starred in Cinderella on TV and Camelot on Broadway — is the opening host on Friday night’s “Great Performances Fortieth Anniversary Celebration,” which airs on PBS at 9 p.m. EST (check local listings). The special kicks off a Friday night PBS Arts Fall Festival, hosted by actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, featuring seven weekly programs that highlight Broadway classics, music from around the country as well as that Brooklyn icon — not the bridge, but Barbra Streisand.
Making a Big Impression
Like Andrews, I’m old enough to have experienced that “once upon a time” era, when mainstream TV took culture seriously. That was in the 1950s. My parents always watched Playhouse 90, which showed original dramas, such as Requiem for a Heavyweight and Judgment at Nuremberg. Every episode of The Ed Sullivan Show featured performers from the hottest Broadway musicals. I remember gathering in front of our Philco TV with the neighborhood kids every year to watch Mary Martin take flight in Peter Pan.
Sharing emcee duties with Andrews are the artistically diverse Audra McDonald, Don Henley, David Hyde Pierce, Josh Groban, Itzhak Perlman, Peter Martins, Patti Austin, Elina Garanca and Michael Bublé. Each talks about what Great Performances meant to them when they were growing up and just starting their careers.
Except for Andrews and Martins, they all perform on the Lincoln Center stage, bringing down the house with their own special talents. Jazz singer Austin teams up with Take 6 for a super-spirited “How High the Moon,” violinist Perlman accompanies Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and the Klezmer Conservatory Band and soprano Granca offers a seductive rendition of “Gypsy Song” from Carmen. Andrews, who lost her singing voice after throat surgery in 1997, is shown performing in old clips. So, too, is a boyish Martins.
Highlights from Great Performances’ last 40 years are sprinkled throughout the 90 minutes, including a delicious segment from South Pacific, in which Alec Baldwin — sporting a coconut shell bra and grass skirt — performs “Honey Bun” with Reba McEntire. Only complaint: The clips are too short, some just a few seconds long. But how else do you fit in the plethora of artists that the show has spotlighted over the years, including Hugh Jackman, Ruth Brown, Elaine Page, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Paul McCartney, Beverly Sills, Andrea Bocelli and Meryl Streep (looking about 18 years old).
A Hip Show That Goes for Baroque
The cool thing about Great Performances is that it’s never been stodgy in its programming. The show has always mixed the traditional with the contemporary. That quality for flair is on display over and over in archival clips — like Tony Bennett and a purple-haired Lady Gaga crooning “The Lady Is a Tramp” or Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis performing “Baroque Duet” for voice and trumpet.
My favorite segment of the special, however, is when Peter Martins, master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, takes his turn as host. He talks about his collaboration with Ray Charles to choreograph his music. "It was one of the highlights of my life," he says. Martins’ remarks lead into a sizzling, three-minute version of the singer-songwriter’s “It Should Have Been Me,” performed on the Lincoln Center stage by the company’s principal dancer, Andrew Veyette.
The timing of Friday night’s “Great Performances Fortieth Anniversary Special” couldn’t have been better, at least in my book. I teach First-Year Writing to college freshmen in Boston. Earlier this week I made a reference to Frank Sinatra and it drew blank stares from my students. “You do know who I’m talking about?” I asked them: “Old Blue Eyes? The Chairman of the Board? ‘My Way’?” Here and there flickered looks of vague recognition.
Their homework for this week is to watch the Friday night special. If I teach them nothing else in this course, I want them to know that there’s a world of great artists to be discovered — beyond Miley Cirus and Justin Bieber.
More than providing a home for the world’s most esteemed artists since 1973, Great Performances has brought those actors, dancers, singers and musicians into our homes. I think of it as the golden age of my living room.