Sample four Broadway shows — two hot, two forgot — without the $100 ticket price with “Show Business: The Road to Broadway,” an engrossing and entertaining new documentary that takes you behind-the-scenes at the high stakes and high heartbreak world of musical theater.
“Show Business” (opening today for a limited run at the E Street Cinema) follows four productions from the 2003-2004 season from the first rehearsals to Tony night: the old-fashioned, big budget musical “Wicked”; an import from London, “Taboo,” also known as “the Boy George musical” and brought to America by the publicity-shy Rosie O'Donnell; the much-anticipated and groundbreaking work from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, “Caroline, or Change”; and a quirky, nontraditional show featuring puppets who curse and drop trou, “Avenue Q.”
Director Dori Berinstein and co-producer and actor Alan Cumming have a doting affection for the stage, and it shows in every frame of “Show Business,” which eschews controversy in favor of cheerleading about the importance of live theater. Any potshots are padded, and the vitriol is reserved for the scenes showing Broadway’s chief theater critics sitting around a table at Ciro’s sniping and carping about which shows they will champion and which ones they will tear apart in print.
The press comes across as a miserable, weaselly lot, while all the hard-working professionals who give blood, sweat and greasepaint for show business are one notch shy of a halo. Even Miss O'Donnell is accorded respect (after all, she put up $10 million of her own money to get “Taboo” on these shores), although the film does document in detail the hullabaloo surrounding her producing the show while in the midst of a highly public lawsuit against the former publishers of Rosie, her eponymous and now defunct magazine. It is more than hinted that Miss O'Donnell’s incessant meddling in revising “Taboo” (the London production was not high-budget, but perfectly delightful and naughty) for middlebrow American audiences was the main reason it was such a resounding flop.
“Show Business” also fawns over the creators of “Wicked,” especially composer Stephen Schwartz, who comes across as George M. Cohan and a musical messiah all rolled into one. “Wicked,” a variation on “The Wizard of Oz” from the Wicked Witch’s perspective, is such an outrageously expensive, impeccably engineered blockbuster that it cannot help but be a success — except critically. Most critics hated the insipid score (except for two good songs) and the bloated excess of the piece, and although it was thought to be a shoo-in for major Tonys, it did not win either best musical or best score. However, “Wicked’s” message of empowerment for young girls has made it an unstoppable, critic-proof hit on Broadway and across the country.
Another show that was expected to sweep the Tonys was “Caroline, or Change,” the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical about the relationship between a Jewish boy in Louisiana and the family’s frustrated and stuck black maid. A musical about stasis is a hard sell, and watching director George C. Wolfe and composer Miss Tesori and lyricist Mr. Kushner agonize over all the details that take a show from promising to magnificent is wrenching and fascinating. You also get a glimpse into the show’s star, Tonya Pinkins, who went from a Tony Award-winning actress in the 1990s to a welfare recipient crashing on friends’ floors, before returning to the stage for this role.
What captivates in “Show Business” is the tale of the dark horse, “Avenue Q,” a show dreamed up by two regular dudes, Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx, who were temping and working minimum wage jobs before coming up with the idea of a grown-up, streetwise “Sesame Street.” Mr. Lopez and Mr. Marx are so unaffected and blown away by the idea that they are on Broadway that you find yourself cheering for them and their little puppet show, which is still selling out in New York. (A tour is planned for the 2007-2008 season.)
Musical theater mavens may find “Show Business” a bit dated. And while the documentary is slick boosterism for Broadway and live theater, you still get drawn in by the razzle-dazzle.
TITLE: “Show Business: The Road to Broadway”
RATING: Rated PG for language, sexual references
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS