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The Sound of Musicals; Imagine… Broadway Musicals: a Jewish Legacy

Tue Nov 12, 9-10pm, C4 & 10.35pm-12.05am, BBC1

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with London’s West End will realise the significance of the musical, both as form of creative expression and bloody great cash cow. ‘The Sound of Musicals’ goes behind the scenes of a few of them, beginning with ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.

It’s a scrappy hour of television, content to observe that, while stuff goes wrong (breaking voices and glass elevators), things generally work out for the best – perhaps the price to pay for the access granted by Sam Mendes and his team. There’s also a bizarrely short detour via ‘Book of Mormon’, presumably to provide context but ultimately only confusing things. As a glance at the nuts and bolts of putting together a blockbuster musical, it’s okay. But it’s hardly an in-depth analysis of a genuine phenomenon. Perhaps later instalments will dig a little deeper.

Much better is Alan Yentob and Michael Kantor’s examination of how Jewish composers – from the Gerswhins and Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim and Mel Brooks – have moulded the musical. Simon Schama looked briefly at the same topic in his magnificent ‘Story of the Jews’ series, but this takes a broader, more optimistic angle.

While Jews filtered their historical outsider status and struggle for acceptance through musical theatre, this never treats them as victims. The narration is a little glib in places, but sparkling contributors and irresistible archive film ensure ‘Broadway Musicals’ never feels like a schlep.