Theatre Journal: October 23, 2004

The American Musical on PBS - A Fact Check

by John Kenrick

It is one thing when political debates require fact checks. After all, we expect politicians to lie. But it is sad when a PBS documentary needs a fact check.

The six-hour documentary Broadway: The American Musical debuted on PBS this week, offering a spectacular visual presentation. But good as it looked, this documentary did not always bother to get its facts right. Most of the on-screen experts and professionals knew their stuff, and it was grand to see some amazingly rare photos and film clips. It was the narration that was littered with clumsy inaccuracies. (Imagine a script that turned the divine Julie Andrews into a liar?) One has to wonder why the writers and producers did not bother to check their facts. It would not have taken much time -- in fact, none of the information in question is hard to come by.

Appalled by what I was seeing and hearing, I jotted down mistakes as the episodes ran by, then posted them nightly on's All That Chat board. At the suggestion of several other "chatterati," I am posting a full list of those gaffs here:

Eight mistakes in six hours -- no big deal, you say? Well, I disagree. If you are going to teach the history of an art form, investing several years and substantial bucks in the process, you owe it to your subject and the public to get your basic facts right. Did Ken Burns get confuse dates in The Civil War, or claim that Babe Ruth created the "shape" of Baseball?

I applaud the producers and writers of Broadway: The American Musical for an often stunning presentation. They clearly moved mountains to uncover some marvelous material. But I cannot understand why they cheapened their efforts with careless research.

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