Dori Berinstein's camera seems to be everywhere at once in Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway, a backstage look at the business they call show. From the opening montage establishing the flurry of preparations on a show night (including stars like John Lithgow and Patrick Stewart applying their own makeup) to the post-Tony Awards aftermath, Showbusiness gives a strong impression of the atmosphere, excitement and complexity of a Broadway production.
Particularly, Berinstein focuses on the origins, rehearsals, openings, and Tony Award aspirations of four musicals premiering in the 2003-2004 Broadway season: Wicked, Taboo, Avenue Q, and Caroline, or Change. The first had an out-of-town tryout in San Francisco, the second premiered on London's West End, and the third and fourth both won coveted upgrades from Off-Broadway: hence, "The Road to Broadway." "The risk-reward, frankly, is terrible," says theatre owner and producer Rocco Landesman. Only tested quantities inhabit Broadway theatres, and the affirmation of the Tonys is usually requisite for survival (three out of the four featured shows wound up competing for Best Musical at the Tonys).
Stephen Schwartz's Wicked fumbles over how to shape its story, The Wizard of Oz retold from the "Wicked" Witch's perspective. Caroline, or Change, about the uncomfortable relationship between a white boy and his black maid, demonstrates the earnest effort of collaboration (between writer-lyricist Tony Kushner, composer Jeanine Tesori, and director George C. Wolfe). Avenue Q has behind-the-scenes tension, but also a high concept that takes off running, leaving its stunned creators to catch up with their own success, and Taboo is described thusly: "Charles Busch has written Funny Girl for Boy George."
With so much material to cover in only 104 minutes, Showbusiness is catch-as-catch-can, often frustratingly so. But Berinstein manages to keep the big picture (money) in focus, as well as depicting the struggling artists whose destinies are in the hands of forces beyond their control. The actor's life, in particular, is full of joys (performing itself, and theatrical traditions like the Gypsy Robe ceremony) and sorrows. When one performer's show closes, he loses not only his job but his visa.
The real story here may be the role of the press. Berinstein cleverly stages dinners with theatre-beat journalists. They're hardly the Algonquin Round Table, and their smug prognostications are as often wrong as right. They pounce on gossip, and their reviews can make or break a show (particularly those of New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who participates in the film). New York Post writer Michael Riedel wins the jerk prize with his blithe sense of entitlement.
In some ways, the press' role is overestimated (Wicked makes the case by catching on big with family audiences, despite lukewarm reviews). But what William Goldman calls the "bitchiness" of journos clearly damages Taboo, which had the misfortune of being produced by gossip-firestarter Rosie O'Donnell. Through it all, theatre artists refuse to give up on an increasingly trying profession.