Prepare to take a journey behind the curtain, with the all-access pass that is Show Business: The Road to Broadway, a documentary chronicling the fates of four musicals that beat the odds to reach theatre’s “big show.”
That’s the premise for Show Business, and it certainly does get behind the scenes with Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo and Caroline, Or Change, showing how they made it to Broadway, and then how they vied for the big prize: the Tony Award for Best Musical. Hardcore musical fans may not learn anything new here, but the average viewer will likely be enlighted considerably. At the same time, theatre buffs will likely be much more excited than most viewers about seeing stuff like rehearsal footage and interviews with show creators.
Each show has its own character in this documentary. We have Avenue Q, the underdog for a younger audience (not kids, mind you), Wicked, the big-budget juggernaut, Caroline, or Change, an artsy drama, and finally Taboo, the controversial Boy George musical that’s hounded by bad press. While co-producer, co-writer and director Dori Berinstein (Eavesdropping with Alan Cumming) — herself a Broadway producer — defines these main shows in the above terms, Berinstein didn’t create these impressions, her film just offers a nicely balanced presentation of existing perspectives.
A key element of the Show Business story is the influence of New York theatre critics. Throughout the film, a small group of top critics meets at restaurants to discuss the fates of our four main shows and their own opinions, and it’s clear that these few have a lot of sway over the success or failure of any show. They’re not the only influence, but they’re certainly a force to be reckoned with. When the Rosie O’Donnell-produced Taboo goes under toward the end of the film, you know the critics are partly responsible.
When it comes time for the Tony Awards, one of the documentary’s flaws becomes apparent. If Show Business is the only account you’ve seen of the 2004 Broadway season, you’ll have no clue what was behind Avenue Q‘s dramatic upset win for Best New Musical. While this doc does well showing the key players behind the scenes as they await word on their shows’ nominations and then prepare to attend the gala event, the film does not touch on Avenue Q’s huge Tony campaign. If you follow the Oscars at all, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at. Each year one or more films have so much press and promotion leading up to the Academy Awards, that it’s clear the producers want to turn hype into Oscar gold. That’s pretty much what happened with Avenue Q, and it obviously worked. Very few people expected that show to beat Wicked, the big-budget smash hit.
Despite this complaint, the fact is there a is lot of great material in Show Business, both for the uninitiated who’ll learn plenty about the world of musical theatre, and Broadway buffs who’ll love the behind-the-scenes glimpse at some big stars and big shows.
Show Business: The Road to Broadway is presented on a single disc, in 1.33:1 full-screen format. Video quality is about average, thanks to source footage that varies from ‘just ok’ to ‘more than acceptable.’ It’s no real issue for the film, since it has that documentary feel going on anyway, and you can still enjoy the footage of Broadway performances despite slightly grainy picture or lacklustre colours. Let’s call this one ‘good enough.’
Audio is English-only, in Dolby Digital 2.0. As with the video, the quality is average. While everything is perfectly clear, it doesn’t really get beyond that, so even when you’re hearing Broadway’s best belting out some big notes, you don’t get that same feeling you’d have if you were, say, in row 14 at the John Golden Theater. That’s a shame for the musical clips, but not such a big deal for the rest of the production, which is dialogue-heavy with very little else going on, aurally speaking.
Subtitles are available in English (closed-captioned).
Surprisingly, this single-disc release is a showstopper in the bonus materials department, offering a (show)boatload of extras that present viewers even more of the behind-the-scenes scoop on these Broadway productions. Here’s the breakdown:
- Audio commentary: by writer-director Dori Berinstein, actor-lackey Alan Cumming, and Avenue Q co-composer Jeff Marx, this is an entertaining track that reveals even more of the scope of this huge project.
- Bonus footage: separated by Broadway show but adding up to a feature-length collection, this footage shows more scenes from the musicals and lots more behind-the-scenes stuff, all edited in the same style as the main film.
- The Tony Awards: a three-part featurette about the Tony Awards, showing some interview clips and backstage footage. Interesting stuff.
- Broadway Speaks: Broadway bigshots reflect on their love of show business; includes John Lithgow, Liza Minelli, Brian Dennehy and others.
- Broadway Cares Flea Market: a short featurette showing a fundraising event for an AIDs benefit. See Rosie O’Donnell hawking t-shirts!
- Harvey Fierstein BC/EFA Hairspray Speech: related to the same benefit, this clip shows the outrageous Mr. Fierstein, who played Tracy’s mom in Hairspray, imploring the audience to give to the cause.
- Deleted scenes: about 10 minutes’ worth, covering some interesting material that didn’t quite make the cut. Includes a sword-fighting rehearsal with Ethan Hawke.
Between the unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to these four big Broadway shows, and the bountiful extras, Show Business: The Road to Broadway is one heck of a DVD. Definitely a must-by for musical theatre fans, and a must-rent for anyone who enjoys a good documentary.