From Brooklyn's 'Streisand' to Baltimore's 'Raisin,' arts thrive on PBS

"Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn" closes the PBS Fall Arts Festival Friday night. So far, it has been six weeks of diverse and excellent arts programming.
"Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn" closes the PBS Fall Arts Festival Friday night. So far, it has been six weeks of diverse and excellent arts programming. (PBS promotional photo)

I don't expect to find much art on TV anymore — especially on the broadcast networks.

The medium started out with great promise for the arts. Prime-time variety series of the 1950s, like Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," regularly presented singers from the Metropolitan Opera alongside the zany and brilliant live comedic skits for which it was known. Entire series, like "Playhouse 90," offered such productions as "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "Days of Wine and Roses," with the best Broadway actors, directors, producers and writers.

But those days are long gone. One of the first things to get squeezed when money gets tight are the arts. And it has become an axiom of television — perhaps a self-serving justification for the absence — that the arts don't sell.

That's why it has been such an unexpected delight on the TV beat the last six weeks to track the success of the PBS Fall Arts Festival at 9 p.m. Fridays. The series — which included Neil Patrick Harris in Stephen Sondheim's "Company" and Baltimore's Center Stage production of "A Raisin in the Sun Revisited" — concludes Friday with "Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn," a concert recorded in 2012. It's remarkable, moving and not to be missed — whether or not you're a Streisand devotee.

The other productions in the festival were: "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!" with Hugh Jackman, "Moby-Dick from San Francisco Opera," "Nashville 2.0" and "Great Performances 40th Anniversary Celebration."

Beyond the consistent level of excellence, what has been most impressive about the series is its accessibility and diversity — not just in subject matter, but also geography, with productions out of Baltimore, San Francisco and Nashville, Tenn., alongside those from New York City.

"For me, the festival has to have diversity of all kinds," says Donald Thoms, a Baltimore resident who's responsible for the series as executive in charge of arts programming for PBS. "The only way I've ever operated as a programmer in television is that I bring diversity to the screen. That's what I do."

Thoms, a graduate of Morgan State University who has worked as an executive at Maryland Public Television and the Discovery Health Channel, says he also wants the best arts programs for the PBS festival.

"When you think about arts programs in these days of competition, we no longer can sit back and say we don't care about the amount of people watching," he says.

"We do care. We're spending America's money. And we're spending our stations' money, and we cannot afford to spend it recklessly," he adds.

Thoms says he tells producers that PBS these days "values" its airwaves and audience more than ever.

"I tell them, 'You're not giving me anything. I'm giving you a shot at an audience of 2 million people to start with.' And that's a good, new approach we're taking at PBS. We are competitive even as we understand that programming the arts can be tough."

In addition to the arts, Thoms also oversees two of the most socially conscious independent film series on television, "P.O.V." and "Independent Lens." In fact, he created the "Independent Lens" series during a previous tour of duty at PBS.

"I've got the two genres that are really tough," he says, describing the arts audience as "small."

But, he adds, "We haven't abandoned the arts like some other places have done. We embrace them. That's what PBS does. Every Friday night, we're front and center with the arts."

PBS has ratings for only the first two weeks of the festival, according to Michae Godwin, associate director of publicity. Full ratings that can be independently confirmed won't be available until the end of December.

For each of those two shows, the festival has averaged a cumulative audience of 2.9 million viewers, according to Godwin. Thoms says the audience is up 5 percent from last year.

In the fragmented, niche landscape of TV today, that is not bad for any public television show, especially for arts programming that isn't dumbed down.

Far from dumbing it down, Center Stage's "A Raisin in the Sun Revisited," which built on the conversation about race started by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 landmark play, challenged viewers today to think about race relations and civil rights in new ways. That's a little deeper and riskier than "Two and a Half Men," don't you think?

Streisand's concert is clearly the one offering that could attract a large audience, and that's no coincidence. According to Thoms, each yearly festival ends with one arts production that serves as a fundraiser. Streisand's "Back to Brooklyn" concert serves that function this fall.

I watched a screener that had the pledge breaks in it, but not the actual pledge-raising, of course. Would it play better without pledging? Sure.

But this is not an exercise in nostalgia like some of the doo-wop and rock 'n' roll hours of pledge concerts that feature performers who in some cases were never that talented and now bring even less to the stage at their advanced ages.

For baby boomers, there will be plenty of nostalgia when they realize during the concert how much Streisand's voice and some of her most successful recordings are part of the soundtrack of their lives.

But "Back to Brooklyn" is also a chance to watch a great artist who still has much of her instrument left and is daring enough to explore new facets of it onstage. Streisand can't blast the way she used to at the incredible top of what was once her range, but listen to and savor the subtle, quiet, nuanced sensitivity she brings to some of her gentler selections.

Streisand has always been a perfectionist — to the point where it kept her from performing on a concert stage for 27 years. So in this concert, which she wrote, produced and directed, she never lets down or takes the easy way out of a song the way Sinatra did near the end of his singing career. And that's saying something across the span of 27 songs from a then-69-year-old performer.

There are some extra bells and whistles — an appearance by her son, Jason Gould, who sings with her as does the Il Volo trio. I am not that excited by Gould or Il Volo, but two numbers that she does with trumpeter Chris Botti — "What'll I Do" and "My Funny Valentine" — are sublime.

And the audience is in heaven. The concert producers do a nice job of capturing the emotion in this crowd of 19,000 as Streisand returns to her hometown. People leap to their feet with an roar when the lights first come up and show her standing onstage. Close-up shots capture concertgoers in tears just at the sight of her.

"She's a diva, she's a star, and she recognizes who her audience is," Thoms says. "It's a great finale for this year's festival."

Will there be a PBS Fall Arts Festival next year?

While nothing's certain in these revolutionary TV times, Thoms says he's already planning away on a lineup that he hopes will include a version of "The Nance," a play about a gay vaudeville performer starring Nathan Lane, and a 40th anniversary of "Austin City Limits."

"They filmed a version [of 'The Nance'] just for us." Thoms says.

That sounds pretty promising to me.

Here's hoping someday they'll be doing a 40th anniversary celebration of the PBS Fall Arts Festival on whatever medium we are then using to enjoy the content once described as quality TV.


"Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn" airs at 9 p.m. Nov. 29 on MPT (channels 22 and 67).