By theatrical standards, Broadway's 2003-04 season was hardly vintage. But for musicals it was an unusually newsworthy one. Headlines were made, naturally enough, by Rosie O'Donnell, who invested $10 million in the ill-fated Boy George musical "Taboo." The war between the blockbuster "Wicked" and "Avenue Q," the little puppet show that could, for the top Tony was fought with a surprising Harvey Weinstein-like fierceness. And Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline, or Change" had launched an all-out campaign to rescue the Great White Way from complete commercialization with its envelope-pushing civil rights music drama.
In her documentary "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway," director Dori Berinstein juggles these plots and more in an affectionate behind-the-scenes look at the roller-coaster ride of Broadway producing. The film is a love letter to theater and the people who make it. It's a New York story (all roads here lead to Times Square) that's designed to capture the excitement of every step in the creative process, from conception to rehearsals to press openings to, if you're good and lucky, the award ceremonies.
The overriding perspective isn't critical, though the film provides ample opportunity for critics to have their say. In addition to talking-head appearances by the New Yorker's John Lahr and the New York Times' Ben Brantley, there's a table of reviewers at a theater district restaurant (presided over by the New York Post's Mephistophelian theater reporter, Michael Riedel) at which predictions about the season are made with the usual fallibility. "Wicked" doesn't impress the group, which turns out not to matter a whit at the show's booming box office. But a few seem to have a soft spot for the indie spirit of "Avenue Q," and their support goes a long way to helping this comparatively small-scale offering pull off the most unexpected coup at the end of the season.
Berinstein sympathizes with the producers who take the fiscally insane risk of a Broadway run. She doesn't question their taste, probe their more venal impulses or consider alternatives to the theme park that Times Square has become. The film makes it seem as if everyone's in it for love, somehow forgetting that Broadway is close to becoming a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and money like that does strange things to romance.
"ShowBusiness" is very insider-y, though not in a way that breaks new ground. Those who will enjoy the film most are hard-core theater folks who will get a kick out of seeing a recent Broadway year summarized on the big screen. Which, by the way, is how you should see the film, if you have the inclination, as the most impressive thing about it is the way it's shot. The dark lighting, urban soundscapes and hurried camera angles all contribute to a sense of Berinstein's central subject: the frenetic mayhem of a Broadway birth.
One curious tidbit that does turn up is the uneasiness a few of my critical colleagues have about the drubbing meted out to "Taboo." O'Donnell's divisive media presence, inflamed by a court battle over her defunct magazine, certainly didn't calm the pre-opening waters, but the sharks were unusually bloodthirsty this time around. (Confession: I happened to see the show after it was panned and thought it got a bum rap.) Berinstein tracks the pathos of the unfortunate flop through the experience of its ultimately heartbroken star, Euan Morton, whose hollowed-out eyes are like a soldier's at the end of a losing battle.
The flip side to this is the joy experienced by the young creative team of "Avenue Q," whose giddiness in front of parents, girlfriends and other supporters can get a little sickening. But then how can you begrudge fresh talent their moment in the sun, even if it strikes you as odd that a cute but inconsequential off-Broadway show -- essentially a "Sesame Street" for twentysomething slackers -- can move to Broadway and become a world-beating sensation?
Timing, as they say, is everything, and "Avenue Q" filled the void of the 2003-04 season, as many lucky elected officials have done in the past, by having fewer negatives than the competition. "Wicked" was considered bloated and overproduced; "Caroline, or Change" was deep, but not everyone was smitten by its pastiche score and earnest book; and "Taboo" was never given a fighting chance, even though Boy George admits he had to restrain himself from punching out Riedel, who had appointed himself the show's personal gadfly. ("The Boy From Oz," the Hugh Jackman vehicle about the life of Peter Allen, got the Tony nomination for best musical over "Taboo," but as an Australian jukebox import it didn't quite fit into Berinstein's scheme and was never really in the running to win the award, which ultimately went to "Avenue Q.")
Tesori, the composer of "Caroline, or Change," comments that it's harder than ever to predict how a new show will match "the emotional temperature of an audience." Underlying this is the reality that a new musical needs to be not just mildly successful but a runaway hit to survive the economics of Broadway. Star-struck and sentimental, "Show Business" takes that as a reason to extol anyone who even makes the attempt. Whether you find this theatrical cheerleading heartening or disheartening probably depends on the kinds of Broadway musicals you hope one day to see.
"ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway." MPAA rating: PG for language and some sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8233.