SLIFF Review: “On Broadway”

The bright lights of the marquee that can be spotted from the other end of the block. The crush of people milling around outside the doors, under the lights; maybe some of them just got straight off the train, maybe some of them moseyed over from dinner across the street. Then the doors open—it’s a half hour to showtime—and the crowd floods into the theatre lobby, pausing only to have their ticket scanned by an usher before scurrying off in different direction. Some go to the merchandise stand, some go to the bar for a $20 glass of wine, maybe some run for the restroom to head off the inevitable line, and others head straight for their seat. “Do you know where you’re going?” an usher asks before handing you a playbill to peruse as you wait for the curtain to come up. And eventually, that curtain does rise up over the stage, the chatter amongst the patrons that grew ever louder as more of them made their way to their seats abruptly hushing as an announcer implores them to turn off their cell phones, or the conductor leads the orchestra into the first strains of an overture. And for a few hours, you and everyone else in that theatre are transported to another time and place with the help of some talented folks on and off stage, only to be pushed back out into that crowded street under the bright lights of the marquee when it is all over—but maybe you see that street and the world surrounding it a bit differently than you did before you entered the theatre.

It’s difficult to convey the magic of live theatre to someone who has never experienced it. And that magic extends to all levels of the craft, from high school drama clubs to local troupes, to what many consider to be the pinnacle of live theatre: Broadway. But Broadway—the glitzy blocks of theaters lining Times Square in Manhatten that we all know today—wasn’t always that way, and traveled down a long and uneven road of successes and failures to get there. In the documentary “On Broadway,” which played at the virtual St. Louis International Film Festival this weekend, director Oren Jacoby traces Broadway’s journey from the brink of extinction to the beacon of both talent and tourism that it is today.

Actress Helen Mirren, one of a plethora of talent interviewed in “On Broadway”

“On Broadway” briefly goes over the golden age of the Broadway show toward the start of the film, when the 1940s and 50s were dominated not just by popular musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “West Side Story” but plays by some of the era’s most important playwrights, like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But the narrative really picks up toward the end of the 1960s, when Broadway was on the verge of bankruptcy, theaters stood empty, and Times Square was a run-down block where junkies would gather—certainly not a place for families and out-of-towners. But that all started to change in the mid-1970s when investors like the Shuberts and Nederlanders began buying up theatres and investing in new talent, and shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Annie” brought audiences back to Broadway. It was a revitalization not just of the theatre scene, but of New York City, with the now-iconic “I Love New York” marketing campaign heavily using Broadway as a selling point in its advertising. The film proceeds to hit all (or at least most of) the major events in Broadway history from that point—the British musical invasion, the AIDS crisis, Disney entering the scene and not only creating content that was more appealing to families, but popularizing the idea of creating shows based on existing movies and music, diversity coming to Broadway in the form of plays like “Angels in America” and August Wilson’s body of work, and shows such as “Rent” and “Hamilton” bringing a more contemporary style of music to Broadway that appealed to younger, hipper audiences—to the present day.

When I say present day, however, I mean 2019, when “On Broadway” was completed and first began making the rounds on the festival circuit. As we all know, at the time of this writing (November 2020), Broadway has been shut down since mid-March of this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is currently tentatively not scheduled to reopen until June 2021. It’s been a hard year for actors, musicians, stage technicians, producers, ushers, and theatregoers, and “On Broadway” serves a dual purpose in causing us to both feel the absence of live theatre in our lives harder, but also remind us wholeheartedly of what wonderful and unique experience it is, through the plentiful use of archival footage of performances to talking heads like Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren waxing poetic about how special Broadway is to them.

That sentimentality will likely be the main appeal of “On Broadway” to established Broadway fans. Otherwise, the documentary offers up little in the way of new information, and even retells some stories that we’ve seen and heard a million times by now, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s now famous early performance of the opening number of “Hamilton” at the White House. It touches on many topics, but does so in a fast-and-furious way that doesn’t allow for a lot of deep-diving (some topics that the film spends 5 minutes on could have entire documentaries made on them—and in fact, some have). At the same time, the variety of subjects the film makes room for in its under 90 minute runtime is impressive, like the destruction of three historic theatres to make way for the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, or the perpetual contrast between Broadway desiring to foster new, innovative, and inclusive works of art while also relying on commercial shows to turn a profit. Distracting from this narrative a bit is an exploration of an example of a Broadway play being formed, from initial table readings through opening night. The show in question is the comedy “The Nap,” which is perhaps most notable for starring transgender actress Alexandra Billings, but the film doesn’t come back to this thread often enough to flesh it out and make it compelling.

However, for Broadway fans, the whole thing remains immensely engrossing and entertaining, and for those less familiar with the subject, it’s a fantastic introduction that will hopefully inspire the viewer to dive deeper. I’m a huge theatre fan in addition to being a film fan, and I’ve felt the absence of it hard this year. But “On Broadway” made me look back on past trips to the Big Apple—trips I made for no other reason than to watch Broadway shows—with fondness rather than sadness. Provoking nostalgia for Broadway is likely not the reason Oren Jacoby made “On Broadway,” but it serves as a reminder of what we are all currently missing out on—yes, even the simultaneous grime and glittery of Times Square, which Helen Mirren appeared almost too enthusiastic about. And it shows us that Broadway has been close to extinction before; it came back then, and it will come back now.

There is currently no scheduled release date for “On Broadway.” Runtime: 84 minutes. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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