‘ShowBusiness’ is by no means a show-stopper

Stewart Oksenhorn
Cast members of "Avenue Q"
Bruce Glikas/ |

“Avenue Q” won the Tony Award for best musical in 2004.

There. I gave away the ending to a movie, the documentary “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,” and didn’t even give the obligatory “spoiler alert.”Not that anything is really spoiled. “ShowBusiness,” which more or less follows four Broadway musicals from conception to opening night and beyond, sets up the 2004 Tonys ceremony as the payoff for both the shows’ creators and for the movie. But the film fails to build much of an emotional investment in the award, or, more significantly, in the dreams of the artistic teams behind the shows. When we get to Tony night, hearing the announcement that an offbeat adult puppet show beats out the blockbuster hit “Wicked” for the big award causes little sharing in the joy of the “Avenue Q” crew. We just want to find out who won, so we’re not left hanging, and be done with the film.The biggest problem with “ShowBusiness” is its scattershot approach. Focusing on four elaborate, high-profile Broadway productions in a 102-minute documentary is enough to bite off in itself. But Dori Berinstein, who has credits in theater and television and directed the film, compounds the problem by throwing at us a parade of writers, composers, actors, producers, publicists (inward breath), directors, critics, fans and theater operators that there is no way to build a compelling story line. Berinstein seems to give in to the truism that everyone wants their turn in the spotlight. Managing this cast of characters was like keeping track of a Dostoevsky novel. Building an attachment to any of the players didn’t happen; the twists and turns on the way to the Tonys were too diffuse.

In a nutshell (which is slightly less than we get from “ShowBusiness”): “Wicked” – the backstory on Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West – is the front-runner, a big-budget hit by veteran composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. “Avenue Q” is the little musical that could, created by a pair of unknowns who, a couple of years earlier, were marginally employed. “Caroline, or Change” was the revolutionary writer Tony Kushner’s attempt to tell a different sort of story – an autobiographical tale about a Jewish family’s employing of a black housekeeper in 1960s Louisiana – in the context of a Broadway musical. “Taboo” was the black horse, a pairing of ’80s singer Boy George and Rosie O’Donnell, who produced the show and financed it to the tune of $10 million.Like a splashy Broadway production, “ShowBusiness” delivers on energy and visual stimulation. It’s easy to get caught up in the fast pace as the film jumps from home video of the first reading of “Avenue Q,” to a gaggle of top critics dishing about the prospects of the 2004 season, to footage from opening nights, to interviews with the stars. Certain points are clearly made: the talent, the commitment, the challenges, the dreams that converge on Broadway are spectacular. (But when we hear about the money, it fails to impress; the budget of a Broadway musical is on par with an indie film – or an expensive Aspen home.) And like some Broadway, the distractions are everywhere: Was that Bruce Springsteen at a rehearsal of “Wicked”? Why are we watching the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” play softball in Central Park?A few years ago, I gave myself the chore of watching “Riding Giants,” a documentary about a subject – surfing – that interested me not at all. But the film was captivating, revealing one fascinating segment after another. Broadway is a field I have a moderate interest in, but “ShowBusiness” showed me little I didn’t already know.

“ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,” shows Sunday and Monday, July 22-23, at Paepcke Auditorium in the SummerFilms program.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is