A good measure of how interested one would be in a documentary like ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway can be taken by gauging one's reaction to the following sentence: this film captures the tense and worried mood of the Broadway community in the 2003-2004 season, following four new musicals -- Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo, and Caroline, or Change -- as they make a stab at success; or at least profitability. If the idea of watching actors stretch and rehearse as they worry about their show's prospects, or listening to a clutch of top theater critics complain about the current state of live theater over coffee, fills you with dread, then stay far, far away. For theater types who get a little too excited about such things, it would be hard to imagine a better film.
Director Dori Berinstein (who's won a few Tonys producing Broadway shows) has a good feel for what is the overriding emotion of Broadway at any given time, most especially at the loosely-defined summer start of a new season: fear. With multiple cameras following the cast and crews of the four plays as they get ready for their debuts, the tension is thick enough to make one wonder why anybody would bother. This is especially true when one considers the four offerings: a complex opera about a Jewish family's relationship with their servant in 1960s Louisiana (Caroline, or Change), an R-rated musical about big-city slackers performed with Sesame Street-style puppets (Avenue Q), an adaptation of a Wizard of Oz-based novel about the pre-Dorothy lives of the good and bad witch, where the protagonist is covered in green paint (Wicked) and a New Wave disco musical by Boy George rife with surreal New Romantic outfits, bitch-queen dialogue, and rampant bisexuality. Not a safe revival in the lot, which is problematic because in an environment where theater-goers often have to pay upwards of $100 per ticket (you can thank The Producers), they're understandably reluctant to take a risk on anything. As the composer for Caroline puts it, "Broadway is a risk for anything right now."
Each of the plays are profiled with a mix of backstage rehearsal footage and interviews with the principals involved and come with their individual stamp. Wicked arrives in New York weighed down by the baggage of their roundly criticized San Francisco premiere and a massive budget, but has the most theatrical star power (Idina Menzel and a ridiculously bubbly Kristen Chenoweth). Caroline has little mass-market appeal but also the electrifying passion of its director George C. Wolfe, who practically seems to want to leap up on stage and perform the whole thing himself. Avenue Q is the most thrilling in some ways, with the film focusing on the self-deprecating glee of its first-time auteurs, who can't quite believe they're playing in the big leagues. The wild card is Taboo, which is going through frenetic last-minute changes from its original British incarnation and becomes tabloid fodder well before opening because of O'Donnell's presence.
Acting as a Greek chorus are a coffee klatch of Broadway critics, whose sprawling conversations about the state of the theater or the shows in particular are intercut rather skillfully by Berinstein in between all the backstage frettings, illustrating rather precisely the catty kind of feedback hardworking thespians can expect. While not all have their knives out, the Post's critic Michael Riedel, who hardly seems to even like theater, comes off as particularly and needlessly bitchy. (What did Boy George ever do to him?)
For theater types, the tension that ramps up in the film after the plays open and just try to struggle along to the Tonys -- getting closer to the deadly January-February stretch that kills off most weaker productions -- will be thickly palpable; for others, much less so. Where ShowBusiness has broader appeal is in its general fizz of enthused excitement, as well as an intelligent appreciation of the ephemeral nature of live theater, not to mention a work/reward ratio that's weighted almost entirely to the "work" side.
The New York Times' Ben Brantley (who holds about the same weight in Broadway circles as Ebert does in mainstream film criticism, only more so) points out rather smartly the unsung heroes of Broadway, the producers who keep "rising up like Dracula with a stake in his heart" to continually fund shows that have next to no chance of making their money back, much less a profit. It's a plainly horrendous business model, but after spending enough time in the thick of the community profiled here and getting just enough of a whiff of the buzz they get just from being on stage, it's also one that makes complete sense.
What to write on my forehead tonight?