Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Show Business: The Road You Didn't Take to Broadway

If you could wear out a DVD, I would have long ago worn out the DVDs of the two great Broadway documentaries—Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age and Michael Kantor’s PBS Broadway: The American Musical. Because of that, I was supremely excited to see the Dori Berinstein film Show Business: The Road to Broadway when it finally made its way to a theater near me. When it hits DVD, hopefully with a good amount of bonus material, I have a feeling it too will get the re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-watching treatment as well.

As many have said before, yes, the film itself doesn’t offer any tremendous amount of insight into the Broadway theatre world, partially because I was following theatre closely during the 2003-2004 season and because I am aware of all the difficulties of getting a show on Broadway and making it stay there. That is not to say, though, that Show Business: The Road to Broadway isn’t a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in theatre and one I wish all casual theatre-goers would see to help them appreciate the art form. Of particular interest are the perspectives of critics and gossip columnists interviewed for the film, which helps shed some light on what the heck they are thinking as they critique and what pressures they face from their reviewing peers. Needless to say, I can’t wait for the DVD.

The biggest thing the movie did for me, though, is to remind me exactly what the road to Broadway is. Sometimes I forget what following your dreams is supposed to be like. Seeing Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx in Show Business: The Road to Broadway reminded me that the road to Broadway is paved with good intentions and a lot of pain and frustration. I forget the exact details of their stories, but they essentially held a lot of dumb jobs, lost them often, and struggled like artists tend to struggle.

Now, for the record, I’ve never lost a job. In fact, I tend to get people asking me to reconsider my resignation or telling me that they are sad to see me go. But I’ve held my fair share of “I am capable of so much more” jobs, just like Lopez and Marx did. This past Christmas, I worked in the stock room of a big box retailer, which was the epitome of brainless, mind-numbing work that left me at one point contemplating, “Would it be better to finish out my shift or to maim myself with a sippy cup?” It was a tough choice, but I really was greatly thankful for the paycheck that that job provided to supplement my substitute teaching job during the day. I just hope I can look back and say that my road to Broadway was paved with big box retailers.

I love David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s book Making It on Broadway, which I very highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. Collecting interviews from a number of both significant and working class Broadway talents, Wienir and Langel present a vividly real picture of the Broadway life, both before and after “the big break.” You get the stories of the first apartments—roach-infested cubicles in scary areas of the city—and stories of life after the show closes—such as topping off a great role in Cats by having to dress in a cat costume and performing at birthday parties while Mom gives you direction on how to do what you were just paid big bucks to do and were grandly applauded for doing. Yes indeed, Mr. Berlin, there is no business like show business.

But then, face it, what would be a good success story if the person graduated from college, made all the right choices, then became an overnight sensation and won the Tony by age 25?

Last week I attended a recital for a friend raising money, and there I met up with a college theatre friend I hadn’t seen for quite some time. An extremely talented actor, this friend had some success with an upstart theatre group but is now focusing his efforts on other very worthwhile causes. One by one, these very talented theatre folk I know have chosen other roads in life. I don’t blame them. My gosh, I’m thrilled for them. It’s not an honor to stand at a gathering and say, “Yeah, I quit my job to follow a dream in a manner that I thoroughly researched and prepared for but hasn’t come to fruition, so I’m stuck here instead of being there, doing a temporary job that brings only dissatisfaction and frustration.” Maturing doesn’t mean holding onto childhood whims, it means realizing what’s important in life and going for it—whether that’s at a 9-5 job or whether it means aiming for a road less traveled.

At the same time, as frustrated as I get, I guess I’m like so many other people who go for broke to pursue their dreams. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, but I’m happy nonetheless. When I turn fifty, I won’t have to wonder if the dreams I never dared are dead.

That’s why when I hear the news that a great Broadway talent like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Norbert Leo Butz, or Audra McDonald land a television show, I’m so happy for them. Yes, it would be tragic if Audra McDonald were to star in a television show for eleven years, but I don’t know if I can criticize someone for wanting job stability or for wanting to become a big Broadway star via television. The sad truth is that if you come to Broadway via Los Angeles, it’s much easier to get meaty roles. Somewhere recently I read that Audra McDonald wanted to do a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but knew that she wouldn’t have the name to do it. How sad that she was passed up for Beyonce, who, after how many films, finally just learned the definition of the word acting in the film of Dreamgirls. The devastating reality is that if McDonald were to be a big television star, she could come in for a summer and do a big show. She could be stunt casting. Instead of Melanie Griffth in Chicago, we could have Audra McDonald. She may not be a dancer, but then again, these days, what star of Chicago is?

Even if Norbert Leo Butz appears for two or three seasons on a stinky Fox sitcom, he could return to Broadway with a stronger ability to originate roles.

For the modern Broadway star, Los Angeles becomes an all-important detour. Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, and Alan Cumming have all enjoyed great success on stage because of their Los Angeles detours. Yes, Lane had The Producers to propel him into Broadway super-stardom and Chenoweth had Wicked, but that’s because the rest of the country knew them from movie roles and failed sitcoms. People knew Lane from The Lion King, Mouse Hunt, Stuart Little, and all those other generally forgettable roles in generally forgettable movies, so when there was this talk of this stupendous new hit on Broadway, they paid attention because they knew the name.

Sometimes, like the three above, we get them back, other times, we lose them entirely or almost entirely—John Travolta, Kevin Kline, and Marilu Henner all come to mind. But we do need to face the fact that part of the problem lies within ourselves. The Broadway community needs to respect its own self before anyone will respect it.

Look at what happens. You have the Tony Awards, which spends ¾ of the evening proving to the country that because Hollywood validates Broadway, then Broadway is valid. If someone appears on stage opposite of Cheryl Ladd or Reba McEntire or some other big outside star, they list it in their Playbill bios. No one would say, “Beast in Beauty and the Beast (w/ Kerry Butler)” but they would mention Toni Braxton, as if performing with Braxton is any more impressive than performing with Susan Egan or Sarah Uriarte Berry.

It particularly bothers me when people go overboard praising Hollywood talent because they are Hollywood talent. I never saw Reba in Annie Get Your Gun. I was in New York at the time, but because the show was coming on tour, I wanted to see something I wouldn’t get to see at home. I recently watched her “I Got the Sun in the Morning” on Blue Gobo, and she clearly is very talented, but her dancing was pretty stunt-casting quality. I can’t honestly evaluate her overall performance because I didn’t see her, but to say she was better than Bernadette Peters who could act, sing, and dance the role seems a little starry-eyed Other-World awe to me.

Similarly, I remember Chita Rivera praising Antonio Banderas on the Tony Awards, saying something to the effect of what a joy it was to see him making such progress in the show. So . . . when everyone else was falling over themselves trying to say enough words to praise Banderas, was it because he was truly Broadway quality or was it based on the fact that someone of his caliber was stooping down to do little old Broadway?

We have to get to the point where talent is what matters most. Yes, Broadway producers need to get butts in the seats, but if we (as in die-hard Broadway fans) are so awed by a cocktail of Hollywood name and/or sex appeal, then why shouldn’t the producers be too? Is stunt casting bad unless it’s Joey Lawrence because he’s got muscle?

I saw Christina Applegate very early in her time as Charity before she hit Broadway. I will say I was very impressed with how she tackled the role. She had the right amount of charm and perky cuteness for the role, and for a non-dancer, she really moved on that stage to beat the band. She would have been amazing in a film version. However, she lacked the stage presence of any number of very talented “no name” performers I’ve seen—Kim Huber, JoAnn M. Hunter, Darcie Roberts, Andrea Rivette—and from the New York reviews I read, she didn’t seem to become Amy Spanger overnight. Okay, so I know we can’t all be Amy Spanger, but Applegate got a Tony nomination. Christina Applegate gave a great performance, but it was not up to par with many other great performances I’ve seen, and I can’t believe that there weren’t a number of other dynamic performers that season who gave great performances and had stage presence.

I have honestly felt that I would have a much more likely chance of getting a show on Broadway if I could spend five or six years writing for a middling sitcom. If I were to call up one of the big producers on Broadway and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I wrote for show XYZ,” I’d not only get heard but would actually get somewhere. Why? Because people on Broadway feel honored when Hollywood folk “stoop down” to their level. Look at Mel Brooks. He gets washed up in Hollywood, and everyone is ecstatic when he rehashes his past successes with inserted song and dance.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t applaud talent from wherever it comes. In her second Tony acceptance speech, Christine Ebersole basically acknowledged that she came back to New York because Hollywood didn’t want her anymore. Similarly, Hugh Jackman got his start on the stage and was by all accounts a true stage presence in The Boy From Oz. And even though performers like Sandy Duncan and Marilu Henner left Broadway for Hollywood and have not established themselves as contemporary Broadway regulars, they are true Broadway talents and their pre-sitcom Playbill credits prove their talent.

I don’t even have an issue with the flood from American Idol. I saw Diane DeGarmo as Brooklyn, and that girl’s got some real talent. She may have come from television, but she’s very talented. The fact that her first big audition was televised doesn’t make it any less impressive of a talent than Ashley Brown, another young performer who made it big while young because of talent.

And that’s what should count on Broadway—talent. I’m less interested in the road that people take to get to Broadway than I am in what they’ve got while they’re there and how dedicated they are to the craft.

In my dream world, at some point I get a show on television that can be filmed in New York. In fact, I’m in the midst of creating a tween type of show (think Hannah Montana but funny) that will probably never see the light of day, but my goal was to have it produced in New York. I wanted a specific Broadway star to play a reoccurring role, then guest bits and one-time shot characters could culled be from the Broadway ranks. Not only would this provide income to help supplement the life of actors, but it would help create Broadway names so that when families came to New York, little Sally might say, “The mom from that sitcom is in that show; I want to see it!” So instead of seeing a first-rate television star giving a third-rate Broadway performance, there could be a first-rate Broadway star with television credits giving a first-rate Broadway performance.

Any job in show business is a tough one to get and to keep. For every starving artist who hits it big just before being foreclosed upon, God only knows how many there are who never get that big job. Sadly, sometimes to get that big job, these days a theatre star could use the help of some Los Angeles street cred on their road to Broadway. So why shouldn’t we cheer our Broadway talents when they land a big role on a television show? Sadly, we may never see Norbert Leo Butz again (or Heather Headley or Marissa Jaret Winokur or Sara Ramirez), but perhaps he’s just taking the advice of his own community—you’ve only really made it on your road to Broadway when you’ve made it in Hollywood.

Broadway Mouth
July 3, 2007


Leslie said...

I, too, saw and loved Show Business; The Road to Broadway. I plan on making everyone in my family and all my friends watch it (I'll try anyway, they can be stubborn!)when it comes to DVD (which I hope it does). I don't think your average theatre-goer truly appreciates what it takes to launch a B'way show, let alone a successful one.
I enjoy reading your blogs, looking forward to the next one.

Broadway Blog said...

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the encouragement!

MLissa said...

I also admire your friends who at least "gave it a shot." Maybe it didn't work out and maybe it still will, but they're living their life, not watching from the sidelines.

And no, you're right...we can't all be Amy Spanger. :)