PBS ‘Songbook’ series makes lost stage classics live again

Broadway musical fans will go ape Friday night when PBS launches the third season of the “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” series.

The episode is called “Show Tunes” and focuses on the role the Broadway musical has played in American pop music.

While countless great tunes have lived on long after the shows that introduced them closed, the musicals themselves only survive in the memories of those who saw them, as well as cast albums, photographs, Al Hirschfeld caricatures and other memorabilia.

The ephemeral nature of theater is one of its joys and curses — you have to see a performance or production when it happens which makes it a much more treasured part of life, but what a shame that great moments in theater are lost forever with each passing Broadway season.

“Songbook” producer-director Amber Edwards includes two extraordinary discoveries in Friday night’s episode — terrific, privately shot sound film of the original 1971 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and the 1974 revival of “Gypsy” that featured Angela Lansbury (the first actress brave enough to tackle the role that Ethel Merman created in 1959).

The original “Follies” has become a legendary production and those of us who were lucky enough to see it tend to agree that none of the revivals has come near the impact of the 1971 staging by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and the spectacular costume and production design by Florence Klotz and Boris Aronson.

The “Follies” film on the PBS show includes close-to-full numbers featuring Alexis Smith and Gene Nelson as well as footage of the start of the hallucinatory “Loveland” sequence (when the present-day book scenes led to a collective “nervous breakdown” in which the four major characters time traveled from 1971 to their heyday in the 1940s).

The quality of the image and the sound is extraordinary for film more than 40 years old.

The “Gypsy” sequence is doubly delightful because we get to observe Lansbury watching the material for the first time in the company of Feinstein. Edwards splits the screen so that the actress’ assessment of her long ago performance comes through loud and clear (an old pro’s deserved pride in what she accomplished way back when).

As Lansbury notes in her interview, all that remains of her first Tony-winning musical performance in the 1966 “Mame” is some silent 8mm footage. She expresses her gratitude that the original 1979 production of “Sweeney Todd” was taped in its entirety so that younger people can appreciate what she did in the years before “Murder She Wrote” made her a huge TV star.

The “Gypsy” footage is really terrific, bolstering my feeling that Lansbury was the best of all post-Merman Mama Roses (certainly no one else has acted the part with such depth and ferocity).

If you love Broadway history, you won’t want to miss “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” on Friday.

Joe Meyers