Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Show Business: The Road to Broadway


Compared to the movies, they don’t make a lot of documentaries about Broadway. This is one of the better ones. The conclusion you have to reach at the end is quite simple. Theater on Broadway could be immeasurably improved by lining about a dozen people up against a wall in Shubert Alley and shooting them. I’m referring to the theater critics, of course, mostly New York critics, who used to be able to kill a show after one performance, but now can kill it while it’s still in tryouts. Why do people listen to these assholes? Not even Roger Ebert, surely the most powerful movie reviewer in America, can kill a movie with one bad review, and in fact, a lot of bad movies with bad reviews still make a lot of money. I don’t know if that’s all a good thing, but it is good in the sense that people don’t really listen to movie critics like they seem to listen to this small group of buttheads, who we see here smugly sitting around a table and dissecting with their rapier wit the work of their betters.

If you are a theater lover, like I am, try The Season, by William Goldman, absolutely essential reading. For one year, in 1968, he attended every show that opened on Broadway, and a lot of off-Broadway plays. Then he wrote what is still, almost 40 years later, the best book about it I’ve ever seen. (A copy of it can be seen in this movie, sitting on someone’s desk, second book from the top.) (He’s also in the movie, but not long enough.) Basically things have gone from bad to worse, but still the “fabulous invalid” lives on. A million or two spent on a major musical used to be big money. Now a big one will cost up to $15 million, and has a much smaller shot at making its money back than a Hollywood blockbuster. What an insane crapshoot! Why do they do it? Because they love it, and because it is the most exciting thing in show business.

This movie follows four musicals that opened in 2004. We see them in rehearsals, being reviewed, closing, right on to that make-or-break night: The Tony Awards. They are:

Wicked. This is the big, expensive one, at $14 million dollars. (Coincidentally, we had just seen one of the co-stars, Idina Menzel, in Enchanted the very day we watched this.) “Overproduced,” one critic intones. I haven’t seen it, though it’s been playing just down the street from us at the Pantages for almost a year now. All I can tell you is I like the music, and “overproduced” is a pretty stupid word. We didn’t come to this seeking Tennessee Williams, did we? We didn’t pay $100 and up—these days, maybe way up—for a sensitive little one-set three-character piece, did we? Critics are idiots.

Taboo. It was a hit in London, and Rosie O’Donnell loved it and spent $10 million of her own money to bring it to Broadway. And that was its biggest problem, it seems. Broadway is as celebrity-gossip driven as Hollywood, and Rosie is controversial, so before it even opened the catty claws were out, savaging her as much as the play. Now, I’ll confess, this is the story of the life of Boy George, and there are few people I could be less interested in. I doubt I’d have bought a ticket. But a show should rise or fall on its merits, not the antics of its producer.

Caroline, or Change. Hate the title, loved what I saw of the singing of the star, Tonya Pinkins. This is an attempt at a “small” musical, with unglamorous settings. I have no problem with that: I loved A Chorus Line, along with everyone else, which is most bare stage, and years ago I saw Serafina! on Broadway, whose sets were mostly chain-link fences and barbed wire. This is by Tony Kushner, who is most famous for Angels in America. I only saw the HBO version, and was not wild about it, except for the pleasure of seeing Roy Cohn dying in agony from AIDS. Here we have the story of Tony growing up in Louisiana, with a mostly black cast. I’d have given it a try.

Avenue Q. You can’t help rooting for these guys, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Nobody told them you couldn’t just show up in New York with a show consisting of Sesame Street-like puppets with visible operators and a lot of catchy, witty tunes, and take Broadway by storm, so they just did it. They began off-Broadway, then moved to the big time, and next thing you know they were a smash and in contention for the Tony. This was budget Broadway, and they were up against Wicked and Taboo (which, it turns out, didn’t even get nominated), multi-million-dollar extravaganzas. Nobody figured they had a chance. “Where is their audience?” the round-table critics sneered. “Sesame Street kids, all grown up now?” I hope all those asshole bet large on Wicked, because come Tony night they opened the envelope, and the winnah is

{{Avenue Q{{, in what everyone called the biggest upset in Tony history. I haven’t seen it, more’s the pity, but all you have to do is see a few of the clips, available on YouTube, of songs like “If You Were Gay,” and “The Internet is for Porn,” and you can’t help feeling the Tony voters were just endorsing something that was different, off-the-wall, and sheer fun. Caroline, or Change was dead serious, maybe too serious, Wicked was your standard Broadway fare, Taboo was a vanity project by and about Boy George, and The Boy From Oz (the other nominee) was a vanity project by and about Peter Allen. How could you not vote for Q?

There is a short sequence here that quickly covers the other shows that opened—and all too often, closed after only a few performances, or even during previews. It’s scary. Sure, some of them probably sucked, but I can’t believe that many of them did. And it’s heartbreaking, in a way that a movie bombing just is not. You make a movie, you move on to the next one, whether you are cast or crew. Then the tech people edit it, the marketing people do their thing, prints are made, and it’s shipped to the theaters a year after you made it, you’ve almost forgotten it. It bombs. Oh, well, by then you’re in the middle of something else. Not on Broadway. The knife slides right into your guts when the producer calls the cast together during the second week of something you’ve been slaving at for over a year, and tells you there will be no show tomorrow, and thanks for coming and pouring your heart into it! It’s so sad. And much of it could be so avoidable, if not for the sharp knives of the people who don’t have the talent to put on a show in Farmer Brown’s barn: the critics.