'On Broadway': Film Review

Colin Rogal/Storyville Films
A fast-paced and entertaining, if not particularly deep, primer.

Oren Jacoby's documentary chronicles the changes in Broadway theater over the last 50 years.

Oren Jacoby's documentary chronicling decades of Broadway theater history will most appeal to theater lovers who are always eager to see their favorite entertainment form given its deserved attention. Unfortunately, any Broadway aficionado is likely to already be familiar with nearly everything featured in On Broadway, which tries so hard to be comprehensive that it winds up flitting over its myriad topics and only rarely delving interestingly below the surface. Receiving its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival, the doc too often has the feel of a well-organized promotional video.  

There's certainly no shortage of star power on display in the film, which begins with the stirring strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and features a gallery of recognizable performers (most of them also film and TV stars, of course) similarly rhapsodizing about the magic of theater. Ian McKellen solemnly informs us, "Without the theater, New York would somehow not be itself." John Lithgow describes the wonderment he felt when he was taken as a child to see Broadway shows on special occasions. Helen Mirren marvels at the idea that hundreds of audience members are willing to sit quietly and pay attention to a live performance. (Mirren is one of the film's more engaging commentators, but she lost me when she says about modern-day Times Square, "I absolutely love it!" That makes one of us, Helen).

The documentary's narrative essentially begins in the late 1960s, when Times Square was, as Lithgow puts it, "a rathole, with wall-to-wall junkies and hustlers." Mirren gushes, "It used to be brothels and strip clubs, and I loved it" (seriously, again?). There were loads of empty Broadway theaters, and attendance plunged by 50 percent in just four years, reaching an all-time low in 1972. New York City was itself facing bankruptcy; the federal government's indifference was captured in the immortal 1975 newspaper headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

As On Broadway would have it, it was The Shubert Organization, then headed by Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs, that came to the rescue. (Schoenfeld's widow Pat is one of the doc's executive producers.) Desperate for product, they began investing in shows themselves, betting not only on properties but also such talents as Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, who would go on revolutionize the American musical.

The film's bite-sized segments deal with a multitude of subjects, including: how non-profit theaters became a breeding ground for commercial Broadway hits, exemplified by A Chorus Line, which ran for 16 years and proved a gold mine for Joe Papp's Public Theater; the impact of the famous "I Love New York" tourism campaign that used Broadway shows as a major marketing hook; the construction of the Marriot Marquis Hotel in Times Square, which necessitated the controversial tearing down of three historic Broadway theaters (we see actor Christopher Reeve sobbing as he watches their destruction);  the wave of British musical spectacles such as Cats, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon; the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the theatrical community;  and the Disney organization taking a chance on the New Amsterdam Theatre, which helped spearhead the dramatic cleanup of Times Square and 42nd Street.

Enhanced by a wealth of archival footage and clips from notable productions, the theatrical history lesson flows smoothly and proves consistently entertaining. Much of the footage will be ultra-familiar to theater fans, such as the clip from D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary Original Cast Album: Company, in which Elaine Stritch desperately struggles to get through her rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" while composer Stephen Sondheim shakes his head disapprovingly. Or Lin-Manuel Miranda announcing at a White House performance that he's written a rap song about one of the Founding Fathers and proceeds to electrify the audience, including Barack and Michelle Obama, with what would eventually become the opening number of Hamilton.

On Broadway also repeatedly features behind-the-scenes segments depicting the process from first rehearsal to opening night of a Broadway play. Unfortunately for the filmmaker, the only one that would give him access was The Nap, a play by Richard Bean produced by Manhattan Theater Club. Revolving around the obscure sport of snooker and featuring no well-known performers, the production proves of minimal interest, save for the participation of actress Alexandra Billings, who became one of the first openly transgender people to play a major role on Broadway.

Production companies: Storyville Films, No Guarantee Theatricals
Director: Oren Jacoby
Producers: Oren Jacoby, Holly Siegel
Executive producers: Pat Schoenfeld, Stephanie Palmer McClelland, John Breglio, Betsy West
Directors of photography: Robert Richman, Buddy Squires
Editors: Ted Raviv, Abhay Sofsky
Composer: Joel Goodman
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival

84 minutes