Advertising Broadway

C show business documentary
Directed by Directed by Oren Jacoby

On Broadway is not so much a documentary, but advertising for New York City’s big and flamboyant theater district. But I’m not sure who they’re marketing to. Is the film for people who might buy a ticket or two, or those who are considering investing in the next big musical? Although we’re told early on that that only 25% of Broadway shows make a profit, the film only focuses on the successes. Over and over, the huge grosses for one show after another are put up on the screen.

The documentary starts at the very recent past, and then goes back to the bad-old-days of the late 1960s and early 70s, when no one wanted to step into 42nd street after dark, which was filled with hookers, drug addicts, and constant, violent crime. So, we see the joyful story of how the city government and some clever investors cleaned up the theater district. The happy ending: people started to come back.

And then we get the main story: Broadway shows from Cats to Hamilton, narrated by several famous performers. From what we hear, it’s all just wonderful – and profitable. Or so we’re told. Proudly the multiple narrators tell us how Broadway now offers us serious plays written and performed by people of color. Gays have always been part of the theater world, but now we can be open about it.

But there’s a dark side that this documentary completely avoids. We never see starving actors, starving playwrights, or starving musicians. Even worse, there’s the sexual abuse that we all know is part of the entertainment business, when powerful producers meet those starving people.

To be fair, clips from the plays and rehearsals are fun to watch and even a little enlightening. After all, Broadway is about entertainment, and these scenes are the best moments in the film.

One of the interview subjects (I think it was Tommy Tune) tells us that he hates the gouging prices and remembers when you could buy the best seat in the house for $10. A quick sequence reminds us that a few young people can get tickets at reasonable prices if they’re lucky. Other interview subjects include Helen Mirren, Christine Baranski, August Wilson, Hal Prince, James Corden, Alec Baldwin, John Lithgow, Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen.

With all that money floating around, the sharks at Disney Corporation soon smell blood. And that’s why we get a good look at Julie Taymor’s puppet-filled version of The Lion King. I’m sure it’s an exciting experience for kids with wealthy parents.

I can understand why the Broadway community would want this sort of documentary. The theaters have been closed for a long time. But why go to the movies to watch a feature-length advertisement. By the way, COVID only pops up at the beginning of the closing credits.

On Broadway opens Friday September 3, at the Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, and the Rafael.