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Show Business by Matthew Murray

  • Top: Raul Esparza (center) and the cast of Taboo; Bottom: Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-librettist Tony Kushner of Caroline, or ChangeA curious thing about the theatre: The most specific things end up being the most universal. It applies to shows, of course; as but one recent example, how often was David Leveaux's 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which was criticized for de-emphasizing the story's inherent Jewishness, compared unfavorably to the original production, which reveled in it? But it's often as true in works about the theatre—William Goldman's book The Season covered only the 1967-1968 Broadway season, but did so in such exhaustive, exacting detail that 40 years on it remains a Bible for anyone who dreams of being in—or even just going to—the theatre.

    The Season resonates with both clarity and hollowness through Show Business, the new documentary by Dori Berinstein that opens today. While Berinstein's film does not reach quite that exalted level, it informs, entertains, and exhilarates as it tracks the 2003-2004 season, putting a special focus on four of that year's major musicals—Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, Taboo, and Wicked, presenting all the love, care, and devotion that are integral parts of the creation of every show. And as long as your needs or desires don't dig much deeper than that, you'll find this an immensely satisfying look at that enigmatic entity known as Broadway.

    What Show Business does not do with any regularity is peel away the layers of twinkling lights, glamour, and glitz to reveal the seamier side lying in wait beneath. Like it or not, that's a key component of Broadway (and the theatre in general), and avoiding it to the degree Berinstein does here is ultimately telling only half the story. The Season succeeded—and continues to compel today—because Goldman was unafraid to aim his rifle at all the elephants in the room and painted a complete and not always flattering picture of a business and social phenomenon that always wants only to look its best. Show Business may put a smile on your face, but almost never gets under your skin.

    This problem manifests itself in the film in two ways, both related to its genial generality. First, it puts very few unfamiliar spins on events that those who were alert, aware, and interested in Broadway during 2003-02004 will need no reminding of. Theatre fanatics will be will aware that Avenue Q and its upstart songwriters Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez trampled over seasoned veteran Stephen Schwartz and his behemoth hit Wicked at the Tonys; that Rosie O'Donnell bragged to anyone who would listen about the glories of the Boy George bio-show Taboo, which eked out a mere 100 performances and closed at a huge financial loss; that the season's "snob hit" (to borrow a term from Goldman) Caroline, or Change met with disappointing houses and an unsurprising fate.

    But its unwillingness to fill in the connecting tissue for neophytes does little dispel the sense of shallowness so many (rightly or wrongly) associate with Broadway. There's no mention of the rumored backstage feuds between Kristin Chenoweth and eventual Tony winner Idina Menzel at Wicked. The goings on at Taboo are also heavily whitewashed, with a few vague suggestions of that show's growing pains but not much that would cast either producer Rosie O'Donnell or star Raul Esparza (who delivers one of the movies more moving declarations of love for the art) in a bad light. Hints of strife during the creation of Avenue Q—apparently Marx and the other resident Jeff, bookwriter Whitty, didn't get along (something I'd never heard whispered until seeing the movie)—but this morsel appears just long enough to tantalize you and then vanishes again once your appetite is whetted.

    Left to right: Linda Winer, Patrick Pacheco, Michael Riedel, Charles Isherwood, Jacques Le SourdThis is not to say that Show Business would have benefited from all harsh edges and doomsaying—it's got plenty of that, courtesy of a coterie of columnists and critics, including the impishly caustic Michael Riedel (from The New York Post), Linda Winer (Newsday), and Charles Isherwood (then the first-night man at Variety, now second-stringer at The New York Times) who are shown gabbing and dining at Orso several times. The juxtaposition of their assessments with the ensuing realities (Riedel: "Who is the audience for Avenue Q?"; Isherwood, on Caroline: "Stasis is not an exciting thing to dramatize") provide the sum total of juicy conflict in a film about a place that thrives on it above all else.

    Most of the rest of Show Business is a dizzying whirlwind of press conferences, rehearsals, writing sessions, and video clips that Berinstein has magically assembled into a cohesive and concise summer-fall-winter-spring rundown of the season that was. You lose a few key explanatory nuggets along the way—no uninitiated watcher will understand Caroline's circuitous route to Broadway, through The Public Theater, even though it's vital for understanding the commercial climate of today's theatre—but you still get a real, and in many ways irreplaceable, sense of the layering levels of working, reworking, and rethinking that are crucial components of every play that hits the boards.

    It's when these resolve into recognizable human stories and revelations that Show Business lives up to its full promise. Caroline director George C. Wolfe giving complex acting notes to one of the cast's youngest actors. The die-hard fans who not only storm the doors at Wicked, but even Taboo (one young woman claimed to have seen it 52 times). Euan Morton's heart-wrenching farewell to New York once his working visa expires following Taboo's closing. And on and on.

    Top: Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez; Bottom: Stephen SchwartzThe richest of these stories is, of course, the most theatrical: Tony night, when we follow the people behind the three of Show Business's shows nominated for Best Musical (Taboo was shut out; the mostly ignored The Boy From Oz nabbed the fourth spot). They progress from their apartments to Radio City Music Hall, and then either to the stage to accept their awards or into the annals of award history via a somewhat sadder route. Even if the outcome of all this is old hat (and for many in the audience, it will be), the added perspective you've gained from getting to them over the course of a year gives it a much different feel than you might remember it having originally. And, of course, watching Caroline's very businesslike composer Jeanine Tesori with her family, or the humbly appreciative Marx with his, drives home the intimate connection that exists between artists and their work in a way the movie's sprawling coverage so often fails to do.

    For the theatre lover, it's an indispensable film, of course—anything that brings Broadway to a wider audience is to be cherished and cheered for that alone. But similar efforts with smaller scopes have seemed even more successful: The 1997 documentary Moon Over Broadway somehow covered almost all the same ground with just one show (Ken Ludwig's highly troubled Carol Burnett vehicle, Moon Over Buffalo), while managing to make grander statements about the tenacious and tenuous give-and-take existing between what you see onstage and what happens off.

    But this epic chronicle of the ins and outs of the New York theatre over one year is almost too-ambitious an undertaking, made even more difficult by Berinstein's determination to give each of her four central subjects equal weight. That very understandable, very egalitarian choice makes Show Business a superb survey course, but very little in the way of a well-rounded education.

    All photos by Bruce Glikas.

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