(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Oren Jacoby
Helen Mirren misses the rats and hookers of Broadway. “They’re my people!” she declares in one the more entertaining and candid interviews of On Broadway. Creative types of all stripes dish about the colourful history of New York City’s iconic strip. Oscar winners and Tony winners reflect on the many ups-and-downs of NYC’s theatre scene in this expansive, sometimes sprawling, doc about the magic of theatre. Even the producers, marketers, and city planners, however, seem to agree with Mirren. The rats and hookers of Broadway have changed over the years. There’s something nostalgic about the days when said vermin and prostitutes were more literal than figurative. However, the show must go on, as they say.
Director Oren Jacoby explores how Broadway grew alongside New York City’s rise as the one of the world’s greatest cities. On Broadway visits the early days when dinner and a show were a regular pastime. However, as movies came in and provided cheaper entertainment, and then musical tastes changed, theatre became anachronistic. Yet the chorus line of actors and artists in On Broadway observes how some of the hardest times for the theatre scene were, as is often the case, breakthrough moments. Jacoby looks at the rise of public theatre that helped artists take risks. He smartly connects past and present, eventually leading to Hamilton’s extraordinary success that might not have been possible without the public theatre. Similarly, the passé odour of wholesome show tunes gave way to the new voices of the changing rock scene.
All the Hits
On Broadway credits numerous productions that marked turning points in New York’s theatre scene. A Chorus Line, for example, gets its due in the public theatre sequence. Jacoby’s interviewees note how audiences were hungry for a show that sang a different tune. They turned an experiment into one of Broadway’s longest-running hits. Similarly, interviewees debate Broadway’s struggle for “prestige,” which often amounted to programming verified hits from the London stage. This tactic nevertheless led to the prominence of dramatic/non-musical theatre with hits like Amadeus.
The conversations pull apart the flood of British productions and credit musical theatre as a truly American tradition. This argument doesn’t always hold as many talking heads cite British works among the major hits. However, interviewees like director George C. Wolfe credit the role Broadway played during the AIDS crisis. Theatre gave a platform to the LGBTQ community when it was being hit hardest. Productions like Angels in America proved watershed moments in culture, captivating audiences of all stripes with a genuinely political, and proudly American, message. The most American charm of Broadway might be the platform it now gives to diverse voices.
The Hookers Return
Then, of course, there’s the great Cats debacle. On Broadway grasps that Andrew Lloyd Weber might be both the best and worst thing to happen to Broadway. Interviewees, including James Corden, whose laughably bad performance in the film adaptation of Cats makes him something of an odd choice here, gush about the bizarre origins and style of Cats. But Cats also marks the growth of Broadway as a tourist commodity, as many talking heads note that its success proved a cultural nadir. Productions became bigger, showier, gaudier, and pricier. As Broadway pulled in the money, the artists suggest that it lost part of its soul.
This point is most evident in the Disneyfication of Broadway. Municipal officials do give Disney credit for renovating the Amsterdam Theatre—a point that artists can hardly balk at when earlier sequences of the doc show how actors rallied to save historic theatres from being destroyed by developers—and even the artists admit that corporate money is necessary to boost Broadway productions on the scale that audiences expect. However, the success of Disney’s shows, including Julie Taymor’s truly visionary adaptation of The Lion King, inspired Broadway to look to Hollywood for inspiration. History proves cyclical as adaptations of family-friendly blockbusters fuel Frozen musicals and Harry Potter plays. Cue the return of jukebox musicals with sugary tracks energizing the cash cow of nostalgia.
The Nap’s a Snooze
On Broadway makes a curious choice, however, to look at one new production. Jacoby goes behind the scenes with a play called The Nap. He observes the work and risks that go into a new Broadway endeavour. From table reads through rehearsals to opening night, On Broadway gives a first-hand look at the artistic inspiration that struggles to assert itself amid the all-out bastardizations playing to packed houses. The Nap, which ran in 2018, is an odd play about snooker (the billiards game) and is mostly notable for casting transgender actress Alexandra Billings. The thesp gets ample screentime in On Broadway and credits The Nap for foregrounding the trans community in queer-friendly Broadway.
That’s a great point that makes The Nap worthy of inclusion alongside Broadway landmarks like Chicago and Fences. Yet Jacoby doesn’t seem to know what to do with thread that weaves throughout the film. Other backstage docs have found better access with stronger material. The thread seems especially loose when Jacoby doesn’t tell audiences what became of the play. From the doc, it seems as if The Nap was a hit. Despite decent reviews, it only ran for 53 performances. What audiences can make of the future of Broadway is therefore up to them. The Nap could be another film.
Yet The Nap’s randomness echoes the wider hole in On Broadway: the doc doesn’t have an argument. It takes audiences through the vicissitudes of the theatre scene amiably, but somewhat aimlessly. However, the final title cards of the film note that Broadway had its best year in 2019. And then COVID shut theatres for months, giving Broadway its hardest hit yet. The doc makes clear that curtains will rise and audiences will return, but as for the rats and hookers, only time will tell.