Broadway, that fabulous invalid, now on life support, manages to haul its sorry ass out of its hospital bed and give its regards to...itself in Dori Berinstein's ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway. And if you're still aglow from last Sunday night's Tony Awards broadcast, you'll be glad to know that Berinstein, a Broadway producer herself, really knows how to put on a show. Actually, four shows: Focusing on the 2003-04 season, the movie follows four of the Tony-nominated musicals through rehearsals, previews, opening nights and, in the case of one of them, closing night. (Why The Boy From Oz was left off the call sheet is anybody's guess.) Then everything culminates with that year's Tony Awards, where a puppet show imported from off-Broadway beat out a heavily financed mega-musical.
Wicked, which imagined what life might have been like for the Wicked Witch of the West before Dorothy Gale blew into town, had everything going for it except for the critics, who either panned it or sat on their hands. ("Totally mediocre," The New Yorker's John Lahr says.) And that opened the door for Avenue Q, the little musical that could. A Sesame Street for twentysomethings featuring nudity, profanity and homosexuality, it charmed the pants off nearly everyone, and we spend a lot of time with its creators, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, who seem rather like cuddly Muppets themselves. Boy George fans, they hang outside the theater where Taboo, our third nominated musical, is previewing, and who should appear, sneaking a cigarette, but the Karma Chameleon himself. Taboo was to have told his life story, but it closed not long after it opened, the victim of a malicious press and a hypersensitive producer, Rosie O'Donnell.
Or something like that. With four shows to get to, Berinstein doesn't have a lot of time to spare, but she does manage to include some scenes with Euan Morton, the star of Taboo, who was on top of the world one minute, having his green card revoked the next. Thus is the precarious life of the Broadway baby. Tonya Pinkins, the lead in our fourth nominated musical, Carol, or Change, already had one Tony under her belt (for 1992's Jelly's Last Jam), but it had not led to bigger and better things. When she was hired for Tony Kushner's civil rights musical drama, she'd lost custody of her kids and was living on welfare. And she funneled all that rage into the role of Carol, a Southern maid who was put in a compromising position by her Jewish employers. Would she win a second Tony? Berinstein somehow generates suspense over something we already know the outcome of.
But maybe we've forgotten. It wasn't exactly a memorable year on Broadway, nor is there likely to be one for a while, if ever again. Berinstein doesn't try to diagnose the patient or prescribe any medicine, and that turns the documentary into a glorified promo. (Hey kids, look what Mickey and Judy, against all odds, came up with out in the barn!) Make that "a very glorified promo," for what ShowBusiness lacks in depth it makes up for in breadth. We're made privy to just about everything, from a group of theater critics sharing notes over dinner to Marx and Lopez, at the piano, trying to come up with a rhyme for "door." ("Whore?") For anybody who ever starred in a high school production of Brigadoon, the movie's going to be a lot of fun. And it does prove, once again, that no matter how many times life rains on Broadway's parade, there will always be somebody who thinks everything's coming up roses.