This isn’t the first time documentary filmmakers have tried to wrap their arms around Broadway.
2007’s Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway focused the lens on the Tony Awards competition between Avenue Q and Wicked, as well as equally interesting also-rans from that season, Taboo and Caroline, or Change.
Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age, from 2003, captured a treasure trove of interview subjects in a love letter to theater. McKay’s anecdotal sequel, Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age was completed after his death and recently aired via Great Performances on PBS.
The new-in-theaters documentary On Broadway has neither the drama and structure of the first nor the access or storytelling sense of the second. Instead, it offers a hodgepodge that leaps around in time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. Sure, we hear from stars (such as Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman) and are told some interesting history. But the filmmakers have a problem with what I’ve referred to in journalism as emptying the notebook. Plus, the film often doesn’t seem to ask the right questions or follow up in a truly curious way.
It opens not with a Broadway tune but with “Rhapsody in Blue” before allowing Helen Mirren, Alec Baldwin and others to tell us how magical New York theater is. An important commercial reality check is provided early on by theater director George C. Wolfe, who reminds us that “every day, you have to pay your rent,” and the fact that, of 38 new shows opening in the 2018-19 season, 75% will flop.
Ah, I thought. We’re now going to get into the financial nitty-gritty of producing, especially when the film boasts backstage access to a show we’re going to follow from rehearsals through opening.
There were lots to choose from in that season. Will it be a new American play with a familiar face — say, Daniel Radcliffe and The Lifespan of a Fact, offering the opportunity to discuss New York theater’s reliance on star power? How about using American Son to look at theatrical efforts to address race? Or exploring a would-be spectacle such as King Kong? Or The Prom, that rare thing: an actual original musical that’s not based on a movie? Or how shows that have been running for decades (take your pick) maintain quality?
Nope. Instead, erratically throughout On Broadway, we go touch base with The Nap, a limited-run British import comedy centered on the game of snooker.
(Go look up “snooker.” I’ll wait.)
The choice feels like “Well, we have the footage so we might as well use it.” Never a good thing in a documentary or fiction film. And the not-particularly insightful Nap scenes continually collide with the chronology of the film’s narrative, which, after briefly touching on Golden Age shows (such as Oklahoma!), primarily covers from the early 1970s through today.
There’s interesting material here, including the battle for the rebuilding of Times Square, which involved the demolition of three theaters and the arrival of Disney. The film balances the sides well, turning over much of the historical heavy lifting to author Michael Riedel without noting his years of theater-dish-delivery through his New York Post column. He’s only identified with the title of one of his books, Razzle Dazzle, without any indication that it’s a book on theater history.
(Note: I recommend both that book and Riedel’s follow-up, Singular Sensation, to anyone wanting to do very readable deeper dives into how Broadway developed and survived.)
Baffling choices continue in On Broadway, sometimes giving the impression that the editor didn’t really know much about theater. Why, for instance, use a shot from The Book of Mormon in a section discussing the domination of jukebox musicals and movie adaptations? Mormon was an example of just the opposite.
And when we finally find out that The Nap opened to good reviews, the doc doesn’t tell us that, not counting previews, The Nap ran for only 53 performances. OK, so it was planned as a limited engagement. But its average price and box-office take were often the lowest on Broadway.
Unlike Beyond the Golden Age, On Broadway doesn’t show much from the actual stage. We see lots of movie-adaptation clips and shots of seedy Times Square before its big makeover. Even Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver are dropped in. There’s Elaine Stritch toasting the ladies who lunch from the great documentary on the recording of the Company album. But performers performing onstage are a rare site here.
The film does a better job at making clear the importance of hit shows, paying particular attention to Amadeus, Cats and A Chorus Line. It wisely celebrates risk-taking, noting the surprise success of the 8 ½-hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and the commitment of producers to stage all of August Wilson’s plays. And credit should be given for a theater doc that gives equal weight to interviews with the maitre’d at Sardi’s as it does to the directors and producers.
But trying to fit all of that in, while also acknowledging Rent, Hamilton and more, is a project better suited for a miniseries than one feature-length flick. As such, On Broadway earns polite applause rather than a standing ovation.