After an unprecedented 18-month shutdown caused by the pandemic, Broadway finally started reopening many shows last month. Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby’s engaging new documentary provides a broad overview of the famed theater district’s history and biggest shows, focusing on the last 50 years but stopping just as the pandemic shuttered everything. The only mention of the crisis in the film is a text epilogue, however the new DVD includes a bonus featurette produced during the shutdown that examines the disastrous impact to Broadway theaters via follow-up Zoom interviews with some of the stars featured in the film.
Jacoby’s film is structured for broad appeal, reviewing Broadway’s most well-known highs and lows of the last 50 years without getting into the weeds of more minute industry politics. He also focuses mostly on musicals, leaving little room for plays, although the works of August Wilson get some welcome attention. If you’ve been alive and vaguely followed the news for the last 50 years, there are no earth-shattering revelations within the film. There are however exclusive interviews featuring some of the biggest film and TV stars to ever grace the Broadway stage, including Hugh Jackman, Helen Mirren, Christine Baranski, John Lithgow, and cover star Ian McKellan. Unfortunately, aside from spirited interview footage of Tommy Tune, true Broadway legends are primarily only featured in archival performance footage, including Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone, James Earl Jones, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Perhaps the logic was that film stars would better draw audiences to a film, but it is perplexing that a film about Broadway doesn’t favor new interviews with primarily theatrical stars.
Jacoby’s biggest concession to plays is his use of a recently mounted play called The Nap as a framing device, checking in on its preparation periodically throughout the film and interviewing its principal stars as they inch closer to debut. The play doesn’t seem like a winner, despite its pedigree coming from the creator of the comedy hit One Man, Two Guvnors that blessed/cursed us with James Corden’s rise to fame. However, it does strive for inclusivity by casting a transsexual as the co-star, Alexandra Billings of Transparent fame. It also happens to star Ben Schnetzer, now gaining attention as the star of FX’s new show based on a comic book, Y: The Last Man, providing a fun look at his theatrical skills before his emergence as a TV star.
The film is a welcome walk down musical memory lane as it traces the Broadway industry trends and tribulations since 1969. Jacoby relies on his interview subjects to recount the oral history. They touch on the seedy, crime-ridden Times Square area of the 1970s that severely depressed attendance but also led to bets on riskier fare such as Sondheim’s works. From there, the gradual cleaning up of the area dovetailed with the emergence of family-friendly megahits circa the late ‘70s such as Annie and Cats, before the AIDS epidemic impacted so many on Broadway through the mid-late ‘80s and led to the radical sea change of Rent. There’s also coverage of the British invasion that gave us megahit musicals from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Cameron Mackintosh, as well as the Disneyfication of Broadway via their crowd-pleasing adaptations of animated classics. The film barely mentions hits of the past decade, aside from the other sea change that has forced the industry to address its casting deficiencies, Hamilton.
Jacoby’s film does a fine job of exploring Broadway’s uneasy relationship between art and commerce, and should be considered essential viewing for musical theatre fans as well as students who weren’t around for the historical moments of the last 50 years. On Broadway is available on DVD on October 19th.