Thursday, October 25, 2007

Show Business: The Road to Broadway

Sometimes things get better with repeated viewing. The most common first reaction to Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway when it hit theaters (now available on DVD) was that it didn’t uncover anything surprising, that it documented an exciting season unfolding as every exciting season unfolds—the show openings, the gossip, the critics, the Tonys, and the show closings with as much drama backstage as was ever onstage. This, too, was my first reaction, but upon second viewing, Show Business: The Road to Broadway proves itself to be more than just a fascinating telling of a familiar story.

There’s the saying that there are no new stories in the world, that what sets a story apart is the way that it is told. The stories of Show Business are of the same ilk—change out Caroline, or Change with Grey Gardens, Tonya Pinkins with Marla Schaffel, Wicked with Aida—but it’s the details that are unique. There’s Rosie O’Donnell’s passion Taboo, which struggles in the face of journalistic adversity despite tears from passionate followers. There’s Tonya Pinkins who shares openly about the struggles of being a working actress and then making it in a beloved show that still closes early. There’s Wicked, which succeeds despite middling reviews to become a phenomenon. Fresh or not, every story is Show Business is interesting and is a story theatre fans will find themselves wanting to visit repeatedly.

The most valuable perspective Show Business uncovers is that of the critic community that holds such persuasion over the theatre-going public, particularly when it comes to musicals with non-traditional concepts or non-traditional stories, the shows audiences are less likely to risk attending. It’s fascinating to see the roundtable discussions that illustrate the thought processes some critics experience in analyzing a show. For example, one critic appears to dismiss Caroline, or Change simply because, to her mind, it offers nothing new.

An unexpected surprise of this second viewing, however, is that once you are done tasting the strongest flavors, there are many subtle spices mixed in with the narrative (and bonus features), words and ideas that give us cause for pause and reflection. One of the biggest ideas presented indirectly is questioning what makes for a great show that is produce-able in this day and age. After all the Taboo drama ends with the show’s closing, Dori Bernstein pulls the viewer away from the storm and presents calmer perspectives on the show, and it makes you wonder how much of the Broadway drama is just that—drama—instead of level-headed thinking. And there are a myriad of other important questions that arise out of the narrative. The key to seeing them is to take a step in viewing the film a second time, when the narrative can take a backseat to detailed observation.

The DVD is also filled with a variety of interesting bonus features. The best is probably the commentary track with producer/director Dori Bernstein, co-producer and Tony-winning actor Alan Cumming, and Tony-winning Avenue Q co-songwriter Jeff Marx. While there are a few interesting tidbits in what they say, the most appealing aspect of this commentary is that the viewer gets to listen in while three significant Broadway figures share their perspectives on the Broadway process and the shows of that season. Jeff Marx talks about seeing Taboo and Caroline, or Change several times, for example, and all three heap praise on various figures within the narrative. It’s fascinating and a side of the Broadway creative talent no one really gets to see—their honest reactions to what is going on in the Broadway world.

The other bonus features are also worth a second visit to the feature. In the section in which each of the four profiled shows gets additional face-time, Bernstein includes clips from the shows, including Raul Esparza performing in Taboo and more Tonya Pinkins and Anika Noni Rose in Caroline, or Change. There’s Harvey Fierstein’s BC/EFA speech at the end of a performance of Hairspray, deleted scenes that include Avenue Q’s Tony campaign party and set construction footage from Wicked. In the Broadway Speaks section, several significant Broadway figures share experiences from their Broadway experience, including John Lithgow sharing about thunderous applause right after being told his show was closing and Donna Murphy’s demonstrative expression of her passion for performing onstage. There’s even an early trailer for the film different from the one that popped up on the Internet.

The DVD of Show Business offers a valuable illustration of the vagaries, passions, and talent of Broadway. For the uninitiated, it presents an eye-opening look at what people do for love under adverse circumstances. For those of us who are well-studied on the process of Broadway, it’s a great story of a fascinating season and one we’ll want to relive again.

In other words, don’t miss it.

the Broadway Mouth
October 25, 2007

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