There is a familiar rhythm to narratives about Manhattan, and more specifically, about the New York theater scene. A good place to start is the parade of footage from Times Square in the late-1960s and ’70s, showing streets filled with garbage and rats while sex workers promenade in front of peep shows marquees. Then comes the story of the city’s renaissance, booming tourist trade, and a cleaned-up Midtown. The conclusion will show the area as it is today, a gaudy nonstop circus of lights and consumer branding, with some perfunctory displeasure over the city losing its “grit”.
Oren Jacoby’s thoroughly fun but fairly thin cheerleading documentary On Broadway, premiered at Hamptons International Film Festival 2019, follows a little too much of that storyline, but at least it’s garlanded with ravishing footage.
In theory, On Broadway is meant to be a two-hander. In the main storyline, we are given a rundown of Broadway history from 1969 to the present, as told by theater denizens ranging from A-list performers like Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, and Helen Mirren to directors like Daniel Sullivan and George C. Wolfe, with the odd journalist like Michael Riedel thrown in for broader context. In order to illustrate to viewers how a Broadway show is made, Jacoby cuts back occasionally to behind-the-scenes footage shot during the rehearsals and premiere of Richard Bean’s 2018 comedy, The Nap.
In practice, the history takes over most of the running time, and likely your attention as well. Much of that is due to Jacoby’s adroit usage of anecdotes and archival footage to illustrate various signposts along the way.
In a section detailing 42nd Street in the old days, a fulsomely enthusiastic McKellen remembers looking over from 7th Avenue and thinking, “no theater to be done here”, but also thinking the louche atmosphere was still great fun. On Broadway includes footage of A Chorus Line‘s lengthy workshopping process—a new thing in the mid-’70s, before then casts simply had six weeks of rehearsal and went on with the show. We also see clips from D.A. Pennebaker’s marvelous 1970 musical documentary, Company: Original Cast Album, illustrating the creative revolution that was saving the then-moribund genre of the musical. Whenever Jacoby returns to check in on The Nap (which, fitting the movie’s overall sense of giddy show-must-go-on optimism, opened to rave reviews), the relatively underdeveloped material makes it seem an afterthought.
On Broadway is generally at its best when delivering nuggets of theatrical lore, particularly those involving surprise discoveries. Some are fairly well known, such as how Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his first number from Hamilton at a White House event before it was even a play. It’s a story worth retelling if only for the curious immediacy of the footage and the laughter that greets Miranda when he informs the audience that he has been working on a rap about … Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Somewhat less famous is the anecdote about how producer James Nederlander found a weird little musical called Little Orphan Annie at a small playhouse in Connecticut and turned it, at the urging of Mike Nichols, into one of the most popular shows in Broadway history. Footage of lines of people mad to see The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, an eight-and-a-half-hour two-parter that played to sold-out crowds in the early 1980s (standard tickets were $100; about $300 today), show how special-event phenomena are part of what give Broadway its got-to-see-it thrill.
As part of that storytelling, On Broadway occasionally references some tensions in the generally rah-rah narrative of Broadway’s return from the dead. Some of that comes from familiar grumblings about too many of the shows being either jukebox musicals, based on a movie, or imported from London. Many raised concerns that some of these changes were threatening to turn a vibrant creative community into a theme park.
Much of the tensions come back to what David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) calls the “shotgun marriage” of art and commerce. Jacoby somewhat dutifully covers this perennial issue, which can be summed up somewhat easily by Andrew Lloyd Webber: His loony idea to make a musical out of T.S. Eliot’s nonsense cat poems became one of those blockbusters that kept filling seats when other theaters were dark. But it also led to empty spectacles like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1984 rock musical, Starlight Express.
Jacoby delves somewhat into the business of the theater, noting how Broadway is mostly controlled by a small group of production companies, but doesn’t examine the potential issues that could derive from such a concentration of power. This is not surprising, as one of the movie’s executive producers is a widow of one of those powerful gatekeepers
As such, Jacoby’s movie is close enough to an advertisement for the glories of Broadway that the New York tourism board should simply buy it outright and stream or exhibit it around the world to entice people to come see a show on the Great White Way. On Broadway doesn’t dig deeply into most of the issues he references, particularly the inflationary spiral of ticket pricing, or how the audience has gone in a few decades from being mostly locals to primarily tourists. But whatever the movie lacks in art, it more than makes up for in razzle-dazzle. Like Broadway itself.