A love letter composed on and about the boards

Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway

on May 11, 2007 by Mark Keizer
In an age when a studio forks over $250 million to bankroll Spider-Man 3 , there's something pleasingly retro about a Broadway musical that had mouths agape at its monstrous $14 million budget. It's proof that unlike the multi-platform synergies that dictate the creative fates of most movies, TV shows and pop acts, Broadway maintains its purity, if only because no one's figured out how to create a Drowsy Chaperone video game. Dori Berinstein is a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, and her feature directing debut is a sloppy, wet kiss to the Great White Way that stops short of fawning. Making full use of her unprecedented access, she charts the unpredictable fortunes of four musicals from the 2003-2004 season and, in a case of theatrical providence, they collectively represent the current state of Broadway production, big and small, hit and flop.

The $14 million musical is Wicked , a retelling of the Oz story from the witch's point of view that survived critical pounding to land on every tourist's to-do list. Avenue Q is the R-rated puppet show that went from off-Broadway oddity to Broadway underdog. Caroline, or Change , by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner ( Angels in America ), stars Tonya Pinkins in a return to form following a bitter divorce and child custody battle that halted her career. The runt of the litter is the Boy George bio-musical Taboo , which Rosie O'Donnell, yet to hurl liberal grenades on The View , tried to will into the black before settling on a $10 million personal loss.

Berinstein starts from the creative beginnings, as composers pair with lyricists to start wondering, “What rhymes with door?” As the dancers, choreographers, actors, technicians, stylists and costumers tinker and toil over the “endless series of unbelievable details,” we realize that Broadway (the street, the medium, the state of mind) is a glamorously unglamorous, secret-handshake kind of club with membership requiring hard work for little money and, unlike film and TV, scant recognition from the general public. Even the biggest Broadway personalities (discounting the movie stars who grace the boards with their mighty, box office-goosing presence) are anonymous outside the 12 blocks that comprise New York's theatre district. Berinstein parts the curtain on the process and the people, with a wide range of interviewees, including theatre critics. Unlike movies, Broadway attendance is greatly influenced by critics and Berinstein assembles a roundtable of tastemakers, including The New York Times' Ben Brantley, The New Yorker's John Lahr and the New York Post's Michael Riedel. They're smartly interviewed prior to the opening of the four shows, giving us a sense of their prescience and their interest in out-intellectualizing the others before Berinstein's cameras.

Berinstein's gold-level access culminates in the recording of the mysterious Gypsy Robe ceremony, the opening night ritual where the senior cast member dons a robe adorned with mementos from previous musicals and dances around backstage as others touch the robe for good luck. From that moment on, the fate of every Broadway show is in the hands of critics, tourists and those who, thanks to Berinstein's celebratory but lucid documentary, now have a better sense of what it takes to make it on Broadway.
Distributor: Regent  
Director/Producer: Dori Berinstein
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG for language and some sexual references
Running time: 104 min.
Release date: May 11, 2007 NY
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