So before you read this, know one thing. I am a theatre nut. Not as nutty (read: competetive,bithcy) as some theatre nuts, but still...there is no where I feel as comfortable as in a theater. I could spend all day in a theatre, and have. When I was acting, it was the place I loved being--I even catered once on the stage of the New York State theater and Lincoln Center and didn't want it to end. Catering, folks. On tour, with an execrable children's show, seeing theatre architecture across the country, and performing in theatres like this and this kept me going. So, just to let you know, I'm biased.
Last night I saw "Show Business: The Movie", about the 2003/04 season on Broadway. The film focuses on 4 musicals: "Avenue Q", "Wicked", "Taboo", and "Caroline, or Change", from rehearsals to the Tonys, and is directed by Dori Berenstien, a Tony award-winning producer herself. Charting the rise (and fall) of the shows, she gets great footage from actors, critics, producers, and talking heads. There's some excellent performance footage, and I remembered how magical it can be when a show works. The movie, though, feels like just an outline. Even at a little over an hour and a half, I was left with a glancing portrait of each of the shows, wanting to see more (she's a producer--perhaps that's the point). The footage she has is so rich, though, I was wishing this was a series of movies, as each show seems as if it could've supported it's own doc.
The film is divided into four seasons (Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring), and follows the shows through rehearsal and opening-- Q, then Wicked, then Taboo, and finally Caroline. This is tracked, somewhat ingeniously, by a Greek chorus of critics, including Michael Reidel of the Post; Christopher Isherwood, late of Variety and now of the NYTimes; Linda Winer of Newsday; Patrick Pacheco of Show People; and Jacques Le Sourd from Gannett, who are all shown eating and drinking at a round table and discussing theater. Add to that, from remote locations, John Lahr and Ben Brantley and you have quite a slew of formidable critics. Reidel comes off as a complete ass, which is somewhat delicious (surprise, the Post gave the doc it's worst review). So, added to watching rehearsals and the creative process, we also see what the critics are predicting will succeed or fail (sometimes before opening). Reidel seems to have had a personal vendetta against Taboo, and when that show fails, it looks as if it's completely the media's fault. Winer even says that she doesn't think the show had a fair chance, and certainly the fans (some of whom had seen the show dozens of times) crying outside of closing night would probably agree. Boy George has a great line about the critics supposedly being there to champion new work but are completely responsible for its demise, and that they'll probably be stuck with Andrew Lloyd Weber. Certainly Wicked makes that point--though all the critics lambasted it, it is, and continues to be, the biggest financial success on Broadway. It's kind of wonderful watching thier cluelessness, and I'm sure the producer took not a little relish in making them look slighty pompous. The best laughs come from the critics.
Critics aside, the strength of this film is getting to see all of the performers and creators in rehearsal and in action, particularly Tonya Pinkins, Euan Morton, Raul Esparza, Idina Menzel, Joe Mantello, Stephen Schwartz, George C. Wolfe, Idina Menzel, Jeff Whitty, Jeff Marx, and Bobby Lopez, and Boy George, and co-producer of the film Alan Cumming, who all provide great interviews. But then again, it feels a little crammed, and all of these people you could watch for much longer. George C. Wolfe in rehearsal is fascinating, as are the Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, who we get to see hitting a wall in one of the many humorous places in the film. My personal fave, though, is my new crush, Jeff Marx (co creator of Avenue Q), who has just the right amount of dorkishness, intelligence, cynicism and silliness to be adorable. And hearing his Dad talk about how he couldn't hold a job and that he was so wierd he had to do great things, you just want to give him a hug. He doesn't mention he has a law degree. Ah, parents. There's also a bit of the Tonya Pinkins story, and how that shaped the role of Caroline, which is legendary I think, at this point.
For all it leaves in, though, there are a few notable omissions: though much is made of Avenue Q and it's Tony suprise, no one mentions the "Vote with your Heart" Tony mailer song that the show sent out pointedly to sway voters; though Anika Noni Rose is shown in rehearsal, no mention is made of her Tony win for Caroline. And I actually could've used more Tony Kushner (but that's me).
The film feels like a fascinating conversation starter, with just enough to get you hooked in, but no payoff. It definitely made me miss New York, and the excitement of the theatre there that is unlike any other. Ultimately, though, it could've been an entire season of a reality show (and somewhat felt like it--"The Race for the Tony's"). Too bad the Grease show didn't work--it could've used a little of the sparkle of this film.
The thing that keeps coming up during the film is the love that people have for these shows, and for fighting this uphill battle. Euan Morton is heartbreaking on the pre-mature closing of Taboo, and you realize how much heart and soul can go into a show--magnified by hearing and seeing him perform. For all the cyncism I hear is rampant among performers on Broadway (calling in sick, complaining, etc) in Phantom, Beauty and the Beast, etc, it's nice to see that shows are still created for love of doing it, and for getting a story you can care about to an audience. The most poignant and joyous scene in the film is the passing on of the gypsy robe--a time honored tradition that never having been in a Broadway show I had never witnessed. The robe, with sewn patches from every show, is given to the chorus member who has been in the most productions, who then has to circle the stage 3 times and visit all the dressing rooms while wearing the robe. IT's a joy to watch, and a something to see how important this tradition is. With all the talk of money and how much a show costs or will profit, it's edifying to see this gift passed around, and how much emotional power it has. And that alone is a reason to keep doing it. I'm a sucker for nostalgia on some level, if it's done in the right way, and those traditions, the spaces, and the ghost light get me every time. Like I said, the film may have it's weaknesses, but on this subject I'm biased. Any information is good information.