Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Show Business: Broadway Lives!


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 2003-04, the Broadway theatre played host to an unusually eclectic batch of new musicals, four of which are profiled in a fascinating new documentary by Dori Berinstein, Show Business: The Road to Broadway. (The publicity material spells the title ShowBusiness, in that horrible sort of nomenclature — one word but with a capital letter in the middle —that started with the naming of computer programs and has, alas, spread, but the title is properly two words on the film’s actual credits.) They were Avenue Q, an adult version of Sesame Street whose creators, songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book writer Jeff Whitty, promised “full puppet nudity”; Wicked, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire that purported to tell the story of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s point of view; Caroline, or Change, a reminiscence by Angels in America author Tony Kushner of his childhood as a white Jewish boy in Louisiana in 1963 and his relationship with his family’s Black maid; and Taboo, an autobiographical show by Boy George dealing with the rise and fall of his rock ’n’ roll career in the early 1980’s.

Three of those shows (all but Taboo) were nominated for Best Musical in the 2004 Tony Awards, and as Show Business makes clear, as little as the Tonys might mean to the rest of the country (the TV audience for them steadily drops every year), they mean a great deal to the New York theatre community not only in prestige but in cold, hard cash. A few Tonys can make the difference between a modest flop and a modest hit, or between a modest hit and a blockbuster. Berinstein had her cameras behind the scenes in the production of all four shows, ultimately shooting over 400 hours of film which she edited down to 102 minutes’ running time, and she was able to score video footage of her principals shot well before — notably a home video of Avenue Q co-creator Lopez belting out “That’s Entertainment!” at 13. While a documentary focusing on one production might have been even more illuminating — and would have given viewers one show to root for instead of whipsawing us between four — there’s something to be said for Berinstein’s approach. It gives us a tapestry of Broadway as a whole and offers four different creative teams with different approaches to revitalizing an art form which peaked in the 1930’s and 1940’s and has moved increasingly away from mass consciousness ever since.

What’s most interesting about Show Business is that it shows how little has really changed about both the creative and business sides of putting on a Broadway show. There are scenes here that could easily have fit into classic “backstage” musical films like 42nd Street (1933) and The Band Wagon (1953): the wearying rehearsal periods in which dance directors try to hone a motley bunch of chorus performers into a well-drilled ensemble; the temperamental stars on whom the shows depend; the uncertainties of the financing and the ever-present fear that a key backer will drop out; and, overall, the great question that looms over every show when the curtain goes up on opening night: “Will they like it?” On Broadway, “they” means not only the first-night audience but also the critics, whom Berinstein shows on screen and uses as a kind of Greek chorus. Critics are probably more important to live theatre in general and Broadway musicals in particular than they are to any other art form; while there’s a built-in audience ready to drop money to see the latest Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean sequel no matter what the reviewers write about it, both the eight-figure investment needed to put on a Broadway musical and the three-figure price of a ticket to one give critics a lot of power because they are among the most powerful voices audience members look to for answers to the question, “Is it worth it?”

One powerful sequence showing just how heavy the hand of tradition is on even the most un-traditional Broadway musical displays the so-called “Gypsy Robe,” brought to each theatre just before opening by an Actors Equity representative and put on the chorus boy or girl with the longest list of previous credits. The recipient is then obliged to run around the backstage area and do a series of prescribed rituals reminiscent of the directions of a scavenger hunt. Berinstein intercuts between the backstages of her four shows to display the presentation of the “Gypsy Robe” and at least some of the antics its wearers perform. The heavy weight of tradition is also apparent in the reactions some of the shows get from the critics; when John Lahr is shown denouncing Wicked as “monumentally mediocre,” it’s hard not to think his view is being warped by his father having played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Another aspect of Broadway that comes through loud and clear in Show Business is how Gay it is. Given the heavy-duty machismo that permeates rock and the outright, proud homophobia of rap, Broadway remains an oasis where Queer performers, musicians and writers can feel relatively safe. At least three major creative people behind Berinstein’s four shows are well-known Queers — Caroline, or Change’s author Tony Kushner and Taboo’s creator, Boy George, and producer, Rosie O’Donnell — and there are plenty of other men in the film who project the sissy stereotype as the way they’re simply the most comfortable being and acting. So drenched are the various backstage milieux in apparent homophilia that when we see Avenue Q co-creator Lopez awaiting the announcement of the Tony nominees at home with a female partner, that is shocking. (The omnipresence of Gay men on Broadway has an interesting historical root: Lee Shubert, who with his two brothers founded the Shubert Organization early in the 20th century and built most of Broadway’s important theatres, insisted on hiring only Gays for male roles and technical crews. The reason: he wanted to cruise the chorus girls and didn’t want to risk having younger, hunkier straight guys around giving him competition.)

But the most fascinating part of theatre explored in Show Business is its impermanence, its evanescence. Once a show closes, it’s gone, and if it closed too soon its investors’ money is gone with it. Rosie O’Donnell spent $10 million of her own money to mount Taboo — itself unusual in a show world where costs have zoomed up so high most modern musicals have up to 20 producers — and lost it all. If you make a flop movie, you still have a salable object and there’s always the chance that it will find a cult audience on DVD, TV or midnight showings and make back some of the money you spent on it. If you make a flop show, you might as well have piled your $10 million on a bunch of logs in Times Square and lit it as a bonfire. And the frustration extends to the audience as well — as Berinstein shows us when the cult that formed around Taboo (some people saw it 25 to 50 times) almost goes into mourning when the closing notice is posted. If you see Show Business and you like the bits of Avenue Q enough to want to see more, you’re in luck; it’s still running on Broadway and the Old Globe’s West Coast premiere production opens June 30 at the Spreckels Theatre downtown. But if you want to see more of Taboo, tough.

Show Business is also full of fascinating human-interest stories. Tonya Pinkins not only belts the big numbers from Caroline, or Change movingly, but her backstory includes a quick fall from grace from a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam a decade earlier through a bitter divorce, loss of her children in a court battle with her ex, and a drop to the bottom that left her homeless before Caroline’s producers gave her a chance to come back. British actor Euan Morton, imported to play Boy George in Taboo after his success in the London run, is forced to return to England when his work visa is automatically cancelled when Taboo closes — but his uncanny impersonation of the early-1980’s Queer pop icon has put him in touch with his musical talents and moved him towards music as a career path. There are also sights like Wicked star Idina Menzel being sprayed with a fine green powder to turn her into the Wicked Witch (a far easier makeup job than the copper-based green greasepaint Margaret Hamilton had to wear in the 1939 film!), or the Avenue Q cast members bringing their hand puppets with them into the studio where they record the original-cast CD.

Show Business is a marvelous film, especially for those who share its makers’ obsession with theatre in general and the Broadway musical in particular. It’s not just an exploration of the grunt work that goes into any production and just how much effort it takes to mount one, though that’s a major part of it. It’s also a meditation on how chancy the theatre is as a business and how much the success or failure of an individual play depends not only on its own quality but on factors totally beyond the talents’ control, including the unusually severe New York winter of January-February 2004 that shook the fates of some of the more marginal shows. But most of all, it’s a valentine to a form of theatre that has given us some of the greatest songs ever written and, though less popular and more cultish than it used to be, still attracts major creative talents and occasionally delivers a masterpiece.

Show Business opens Friday, June 22 at the Landmark Theatres, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2103 for showtimes and other information.