NEW YORK — The US Senate has been called the most exclusive club in the country, but there's another contender for that distinction: the Juilliard School in New York.
In an upcoming segment of PBS's "American Masters" series (Jan. 29, 9 p.m.; check local listings), the spotlight is turned on Juilliard, considered by many to be the premier performing arts institute in the United States.
The two-hour documentary considers both the exalting and the bruising aspects of education there. Many famous faces are called upon to offer accounts of their own experiences at Juilliard - as students, faculty members, or both.
The program also tracks four young people just finishing up their Juilliard educations - an actor, a dancer, a pianist, and a singer.
Some former Juilliard students, like pianist and conductor James Levine, remember feeling that the school offered such riches that it was like "the world's most fabulous candy store."
But others have more troubled memories. Eriq LaSalle (who later went on to achieve fame on "ER") talks about the devastation of being deemed not good enough to stay at the school. Singer Audra McDonald momentarily chokes with tears as she recalls her struggles to bring her unique talent to the fore.
The Juilliard talent pool is so deep that it's hard for those few who are chosen for admission not to doubt themselves once inside.
"You're exalted for 12 years of your life. Then you get to Juilliard and you're not exalted anymore," says actress, singer, and Juilliard grad Patti LuPone.
And yet, insist many of those who survive the trials, the training is the best preparation for a career in the ultracompetitive world of the arts.
"It prepares you for the bungee ride," says actor Robin Williams, also a Juilliard grad.
The program touches only lightly on the school's history. It was founded by Frank Damrosch in 1905 as the Institute of Musical Arts. His dream was to combine the high standards of European classical music education with the democratic American ideal of open enrollment based on talent.
The Institute merged with the Juilliard Graduate School in 1926 and moved to Lincoln Center in 1969. Dance was added in 1951, drama in 1968, and, later, opera and jazz.
Some of the school's most famous faculty members are briefly profiled, and there are clips of Jose Limone teaching dance, Itzhak Perlman gently coaching a young violinist, and Wynton Marsalis offering a private lesson in trumpet.
Longtime violin instructor Dorothy DeLay recalls auditioning a young Itzhak Perlman, an experience she compares to "falling in love."
But some of the most fascinating scenes offer glimpses of the world inside Juilliard.
Kevin Kline and Kelsey Grammer both talk about the power of a class in which actors lose their inhibitions through working with masks. The instructor, Pierre LeFevre, a Juilliard institution, is also shown briefly on camera, working his magic with the school's collection of masks.
Several actors also have vivid memories of a dance class taught by Anna Sokolow, who didn't hesitate to pull her students' hair in an effort to reach them. "If it doesn't hurt, it ain't art," Mr. Kline remembers her saying. The passion she transmitted to students brought a new power to their acting skills.
One speech teacher was so absorbed in her art that, when a student told her his parent had died, she corrected the way he pronounced "father."
Some tense scenes depict eager young students auditioning to get in. There's also a quick look at the admissions committee poring over applications. A few faculty members say they feel the weight of their decisions, knowing they may be shaping people's lives for better or for worse.
Not everyone belongs at Juilliard, both students and faculty stress. Even some with considerable talent are not ready to bear the burden of studying at a school that has already produced - among many others - Phillip Glass, Van Cliburn, Richard Rodgers, Miles Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Renee Fleming, and Leontyne Price.
Studying at Juilliard is the opportunity of a lifetime, but it needs to be considered realistically, says student Elizabeth Morgan, who tries to sum up the mix of magic and despair one experiences there.
"We're all young and we're all talented. That's why we're here," she says. "Doesn't mean we're all going to become famous."