Sun, 03/21/2010 - 7:00pm

Pictured: Host, Michael Feinstein


Credit: APT

Explore the Golden Age of American popular music with some of the nation’s greatest composers. 

THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK airs Sunday, March 21 at 7 p.m. on WXXI-TV(DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11). This special delves into the history of American song from the early 1900s to the 1950s.  Listen to the great works of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and more, and follow the progression of American song from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and Hollywood!  Acclaimed musician and musicologist Michael Feinstein guides viewers through a treasure trove of some of the most memorable and culturally defining songs of the early 20th century. 

The program begins by chronicling the rise of the Broadway musical in the early 1900s and the great composers who wrote for the stage.  From George Michael Cohan – who starred in, wrote and directed his very own Broadway debut ­– to Jerome Kern, who learned how to integrate traditional European songwriting with a relaxed American sensibility, the early Broadway composers integrated their diverse backgrounds and traditions into a new and exciting sound.  In the melting pot of New York City, Irish and Jewish melodies mixed with the rhythms of ragtime, Africa, and the blues.  A whole new sound that transcended the minstrel shows, European operettas, vaudeville, variety shows, and follies of the past began to emerge, and America took notice. The groundbreaking hit production Show Boat, by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, helped popularize an entirely new genre, the “musical play,” characterized by a coherent plot and integrated songs. 

Traveling reviews and vaudeville acts helped make the songs of Broadway popular throughout the country.  Vaudeville performer Al Jolson, who electrified crowds with his distinctive voice and singing style, became America’s first superstar performer.  His celebrity status was cemented with the help of the Ziegfeld Follies, a Broadway review featuring lavish production numbers, dazzling sets and costumes and scores of beautiful dancers. Other stars to emerge under Ziegfeld’s promotion included comedienne and chanteuse Fanny Brice and the brassy-voiced Sophie Tucker. 

THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK also explores the role of song during several traumatic events in American history – two World Wars and the Great Depression. During the first World War, songs like “Over There,” written by Cohan, provided the encouragement the country needed to forge ahead in a time of need.  The Great Depression, on the other hand, had lively and optimistic numbers like “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money),” to lift spirits and lighten the pressures of the financial crisis.  During World War II, bands such as The Andrews Sisters kept spirits high with their swinging, big-band, “boogie-woogie” sound.

When the film industry began to take off in the late ‘20s and ‘30s, composers moved to Hollywood to cash in on the boom. Wonderful new partnerships emerged.  When Irving Berlin teamed with Fred Astaire in the movie Top Hat, magic happened. Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Roberts’ dance to “Cheek to Cheek” is a classic and unforgettable movie moment to this day.  George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harry Warren also contributed many a memorable song to the silver screen.

From the bright lights of Broadway to the glamour of the sunset strip, THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK traces the musical journey of America’s legendary composers. Generations of fans will revel in the landmark moments in song featured in this comprehensive overview of a magical period in American music. 

THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK is presented by Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution in association with American Public Television’s Premium Service, a co-production, co-financing and acquisition fund that provides fundraising specials to member stations, now in its 21st season. With the financial backing of their public television client stations, APT Premium Service has secured many of public television’s most prestigious and highest-rated programs.