One of the most entertaining books ever written about the commercial theater is Ken Mandlebaum's Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops (St. Martin's, 1992). There's something inherently fascinating about the backstories and eventual fates of big stage musicals. The egos involved and the radical revisions that take place during tryouts and previews (a process far more public than movie retweaking) make for high drama, even before you add the Russian roulette economic factor.
While Mandlebaum wrote from a dedicated fan's orchestra-seat perspective, the absorbing new documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway goes way backstage director Dori Berinstein is a Tony-winning stage producer (her latest hit is Legally Blonde) and has privileged access. Her team reportedly shot more than 250 hours of footage, encompassing virtually every Broadway show of the 2003 to 2004 season, then narrowed the focus to the development and destinies of four high-profile musicals.
The quartet spotlighted here spans artistic ranges and commercial fates. The $14 million spectacular Wicked, a schlock-sentimental version of Gregory Maguire's revisionist Oz fantasy, got no critical love during its closely observed San Francisco tryout erstwhile Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz admits to making significant changes between that run and the Broadway opening. But while Wicked proved neither a reviewers' nor a Tony favorite, it's a rare case in which those factors don't matter. It's a massive million-dollar-a-week hit whose geek-empowerment message particularly resonates with younger girls. Those whose parents can afford Broadway prices, that is.
On a whole other plane, the Tony KushnerJeanine Tesori project Caroline, or Change was an emotionally complex, stirring, major high-culture event. Its producers, as New Yorker critic John Lahr puts it, "agreed to lose a little money so this very good thing which doesn't fit the commercial formula [could] be seen." If only for a few months: with its more bitter than sweet emphasis on racial inequity and family dysfunction, no amount of acclaim could turn it into a tourist attraction.
While practically a Broadway bargain at merely $3.5 million in production costs, Avenue Q was considered the season's longest shot a Sesame Street parody whose relatively youthful target audience isn't big on theatergoing. Wags anticipated an off-Broadway show that belonged off Broadway. Its triumphant critical reception and eventual clutch of Tony Awards turned such expectations upside down. Cocreators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez are the giddiest protagonists here, their can't-believe-our-luck exuberance offering a contrast to the sober insights delivered by such experienced hands as Schwartz and Caroline's director, George C. Wolfe.
Finally, there's Taboo, a $10 million total loss for producer Rosie O'Donnell, who shepherded it to Broadway after loving a smaller-scale London staging of the gender-bending, Boy Georgescored musical. Was it just too gay for Broadway? (No, that's not an oxymoron.) Was it simply not very good? (A devoted cadre of mostly punk-goth fans would vehemently disagree.) Did negative press attention to O'Donnell and an apparently turbulent production process unfairly brand it a flop before the opening? We may never know Taboo sure ain't coming to a theater near you anytime soon. One of ShowBusiness's most poignant threads focuses on young unknown Euan Morton, who wins raves in a star part in the huge show. After its closure, his US work visa is revoked; he'll have to restart his career back in England from square one.
ShowBusiness covers everything from playwriting to rehearsals to street buzz to critics, but one wishes it had more depth. Berinstein's insiderdom gets her access but perhaps also limits her willingness to bare all. Clocking in at 102 minutes, her documentary is almost a dirt-free zone. It's refreshing when Marx and book writer Jeff Whitty admit they could barely stand each other while collaborating on Avenue Q though success certainly improves their rapport. And ultimately, their multiple Tony Award wins provide a dramatic highlight. At the ceremony, Carol Channing and LL Cool J copresent an award. It's a showy moment whose mix of the sublime and the surreal encapsulates how unpredictable the business Berinstein examines can be. *
SHOWBUSINESS: THE ROAD
Opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com