Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an advance screening of Dori Bernstein’s new documentary, ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, and enjoyed it a lot. Bernstein takes an inside look at the making of four different Broadway musicals from the 2003-2004 season – Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, Taboo, and Wicked – and follows their paths from rehearsals to opening night to the Tony Awards. It’s a funny, insightful, and inspiring film that takes a most interesting (and unexpected) position: that the makers of these Broadway musicals (or any Broadway musicals, for that matter) are not only the biggest dreamers in show business, but also the biggest risk takers, as well.
Bernstein talks to a lot of people involved with all four shows, and it’s interesting to see the behind-the-scenes dynamics from each rehearsal room: the producers of both Wicked and Taboo are optimistic about their respective show’s commercial prospects. And, the casts of both shows are enthusiastic and happy-as-can-be about working on each project. But, while the Wicked crew seems relaxed and confident about how their production is shaping up, there’s a little more anxiety and uncertainty over at Taboo. Most of them are not used to the media attention brought by their producer (Rosie O’Donnell) or their star (Boy George), and they just hope the show can stand up to such scrutiny.
By the way: anyone looking for hints of Taboo‘s much-publicized behind-the-scenes turmoil won’t find any here. All the principals – Euan Morton, Raul Esparza, and Boy George – are on their best behavior for the camera, and present a solid, unified front. (Morton does get in a terrific little anecdote about George’s first meeting with, and impression of, O’Donnell. I can’t repeat it here, but it’s a classic.)
The Avenue Q team are clearly nervous. They’re hoping for the best, but have no idea how their little-show-that-could will fare on the Great White Way. Composers Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez are interviewed at length about the genesis of the show, which they had high hopes for from the start (they first conceived it as a television show). Marx is also up front about the creative friction between himself and book writer Jeff Whitty. Ultimately, though, they realize that the show is bigger than both of them, and they each buck up and take care of business.
By comparison, the Caroline, or Change team are so laid back they look like they’re on vacation. They know their show is the least commercial of the bunch, but that knowledge seems to liberate them all from caring. They just focus on getting the job done, and trust that the chips will fall where they may. There’s a lot of great rehearsal footage from this show: composer Jeanine Tesori and book writer Tony Kushner sitting at the piano writing a song together; director George C. Wolfe orchestrating tech rehearsal with a firm but nurturing hand; and star Tonya Pinkins talking about how her life up to that point has prepared her for this role. (Pinkins has quite a story to tell, worthy of its own documentary. Click here for more about that.)
All throughout, Bernstein throws in interview footage of several theatre insiders – including Alan Cumming, producer Rocco Landesman, and publicists Chris Boneau and Nancy Coyne – offering their thoughts on the art and business of Broadway theatre. Good stuff.
Sadly, the folks who come off looking the worst are the critics. Bernstein convenes a roundtable of theatre critics (who shall remain nameless here) several times throughout the film to discuss all four of the shows, as well as the season itself. It’s unfortunate (and more than a little dismaying) that not only do they all come off looking like the moustache-twirling villains most people think they are, but a couple of them seem to play that up for the sake of the cameras. Ugh.
Thankfully, the good will and optimism shown by the artists far outweighs any negativity from the critics. Bernstein shows the theatre off as a noble and soul-nourishing vocation that rewards all who fully invest in it. And, even though we see lots of behind-the-scenes footage, Bernstein still manages to keep the magical mystery of the theatre intact for the audience. A very neat trick.
I’ll leave the last word to Pinkins, who makes perhaps the most positive comment in a movie full of them: “Things always work out in the end. If they don’t work out, then it’s not the end.”