In 2003, filmmaker Dori Berinstein chose four Broadway musicals to follow from rehearsals through opening night all the way, hopefully, to the Tony Awards. She picked one sure fire megapalooza ("Wicked "), one show with artistic cred ("Caroline, or Change ," written by Tony Kushner of "Angels in America " fame), one high-profile circus ("Taboo ," starring Boy George and produced by Rosie O'Donnell ), and one question mark ("Avenue Q ," starring dirty-talking puppets).
The resulting documentary, awkwardly titled "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway ," is a testament to the foolhardy nerve of New York's theatrical community, as well as to the high-pressure risk factors involved in putting on a show. Mickey and Judy needed only a barn. Today's Broadway investors need millions of dollars and a few major Tonys, or the theater goes dark a week after the awards.
The film's slick and entertaining, an obvious must-see for musical hounds. It holds water for laypeople, though, because the insights into a communal creative process are so sharp. Berinstein, a Broadway producer herself, got terrific access: Here's "Wicked" star Idina Menzel trying on her green make up for the first time (director Joe Mantello tells her , "You're one of the few people who can pull off green," and he's right).
We see Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori hammer out lyrics and music for "Caroline," while "Avenue Q" creators Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez -- young, enthusiastic, seemingly doomed -- haul their puppet musical from a 1999 workshop video to the Great White Way. "Taboo," a costume extravaganza about the life of nightclub creature Leigh Bowery , attracts tabloid gawking for Boy George's outre make up and O'Donnell's PR pugilism (she's the real star of the show, and that's a problem).
Every so often, "ShowBusiness" cuts away to a roundtable of theater critics at Sardi's, sniping at the various productions with uncommonly shallow observations. If Berinstein wanted to harpoon reviewers, she succeeds, but, really, they should have known better (there's a reason we write rather than talk). The
Lahr calls the ambitious (and quite wonderful) "Caroline, or Change" "a freak -- it doesn't belong on Broadway, and I'm all for it." That tension between art and commerce, between a hit and a good play, is the real subject of "ShowBusiness," and the movie does address it whenever it finds time. There's so much to see, though, and for the theater folk so much to do. "The road from good to great is easy," says "Caroline" director George C. Wolfe . "The road from great to brilliant involves an endless series of details."
In "ShowBusiness," the road ends at the Tony Awards, after which comes the big payday or ignominy. Lucky for Berinstein the 2004 awards held some upsets, giving the film a needed burst of energy in the home stretch. Any sense of closure is temporary, though, for soon a new season of gambles will begin. Says one onlooker here, "There are enough neurotics who want to work in the theater, and hopefully they'll all get their shot."