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Show Business

David Finkle reviews Dori Berinstein's documentary on the 2003-2004 Broadway season.

Alan Cumming is one of the stars
featured in Show Business
Veteran movie and television producer Dori Berinstein's feature-film directorial bow will be seen as more proof, if any is needed, of Irving Berlin's contention that there's no business like show business. It may not completely engender that happy feeling that comes with stealing an extra bow, but it gives any number of both joyful and melancholy insights into the mechanics and often the artistry that go into a Broadway season.

More specifically, the documentary that Berinstein has straightforwardly titled Show Business takes a prolonged gander at the 2003-2004 Broadway season. Even more specifically, it follows four Great White Way musicals -- Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, and Taboo -- almost from inception straight through to Tony night and the David-bests-Goliath triumph of Avenue Q over Wicked.

Presumably, there are two potential audiences for Show Business, which was screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival last week but has yet to find a commercial distributor. The first are the sort of show queens, both male and female, who race to a preview performance and then hustle either to blog their sightings or post them on chat boards. The other target -- and certainly the more difficult to reach -- is the population of viewers who aren't hip to B'way but might do a 180-degree turn if given an understanding of how hard it is to create a musical and how thrilling it is when everything falls together by dint of elbow grease and miracles.

Ironically, the movie may mean more to the unknowledgeables -- if it reaches them -- than it does to the show-biz wise, because much of what the many participants have to say on subjects like songwriting, the rehearsal process, Tony campaigns, et alia can be relatively rudimentary. Nevertheless, even those well-versed on verses and melody, on raising capital, on everything that goes with a Broadway show may glom onto the movie's mild and spicier dish. It's intriguing, for instance, when librettist Jeff Whitty notes he and lyricist Jeff Marx didn't see eye to eye through much of Avenue Q. The confession is valuable as more than bitchery because implicitly emphasized in it is the rocky nature of collaboration. (Cf. for corroboration: Craig Zadan's seminal theater tome, Sondheim & Co.)

As she zooms in on the four shows, Berinstein -- who indicated at a post-screening Q&A that she shot 250 hours of footage, much more of which will be included in one way or another when the film is eventually released on DVD -- gets lots of lowdown from some of the season's most prominent figures. Rosie O'Donnell's conflicting court case during the Taboo rehearsal period is here, as is star Euan Morton's recollection that when O'Donnell came back stage after catching the West End Taboo and made come-to-New York sounds, he and his cohorts predicted that they would "never see that dyke again." (On the other hand, there's only the merest mention of co-star Raúl Esparza's hot-tempered but temporary pre-opening walk-out.) For Avenue Q, Berinstein not only focuses her camera on lyricist Jeff Marx and composer Robert Lopez tweaking a song, she's also included clips from private videotapes of an Avenue Q reading and a backers audition that must have taken place half a dozen years ago. Incidentally, lyricist Marx's dad, Ron, almost steals the movie in a character role as a hard-to-please father who perhaps has his son spending large portions of his now vastly increased income on psychoanalytic therapy sessions.

Idina Menzel (center), Norbert Leo Butz (left), and Kristin Chenoweth
in rehearsal for Wicked
As for the film's coverage of Wicked, producer David Stone is one of that show's talking heads; another is tunesmith Stephen Schwartz, who describes success as capturing "lightning in a bottle." Although Kristin Chenoweth appears frequently, co-star Idina Menzel does the most blabbing about such matters as turning green and how her character is a role model for young girls. Caroline, or Change director George C. Wolfe speaks eloquently about that tuner, which is also represented by plenty of palaver from librettist-lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. Indeed, in a movie that features many people stating the obvious or the easily deduced, Wolfe comes across as the savviest showman of the bunch. He alone talks poetically about getting the most out of an emerging script.

A clever touch of Berinstein's is having a number of professional theater wiseguys and -gals discuss the season. They're critics Linda Winer, Jacques LeSourd, and Charles Isherwood; theater reporter Patrick Pacheco; and gossip columnist Michael Riedel, who comes across as the film's court jester. Over a series of meals at theater hang-outs such as Angus McIndoe, the five of them deliver a series of sophisticated remarks; Riedel, for instance, talks about theater having disappeared from the radar of most people in his age group. But their remarks are perhaps too smart. If Show Business has any deep point to make, it may be that critics aren't as successfully dictatorial as they're often cracked up to be. Initially, the members of this dining-and-dissecting posse all but dismiss Wicked as a possible commercial success, only to have to admit during a later spied-upon repast that the show has become the season's blockbuster. When Avenue Q is first discussed, Riedel asks with a mocking tone who the show's audience is. Well, the answer has since been resoundingly supplied: Almost everybody! If Wicked and Avenue Q can trump what the supposed cognoscenti have to say about them, so much for the perceived power of such persons.

With all its well-filmed and well-edited savvy, Show Business does miss some quite important opportunities. For example, there's absolutely no reference to Off-Broadway -- a serious omission in that two of the four musicals were transfers from downtown Obie-land, where originality in musicals is far more strongly encouraged than it is uptown. Yes, there's some banter about the wisdom of moving Avenue Q to the Main Stem, but from where isn't specified. Also, since four shows are stalked, it's difficult to get way inside any one of them. (As a point of contrast, see the DA Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary Moon Over Broadway, during which the all-seeing camera is like a fly on the walls of the many rooms through which Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo passes on its trek to Broadway.)

Other oversights include any truly close look at Tony Award campaigns. Serino Coyne theatrical advertising exec Nancy Coyne is seen presiding over a post-Tony-nominations brainstorming session, but Berinstein doesn't get around to Avenue Q's controversial "vote your heart" drive and its effect on road presenters. (This is the canny scheme that began to look just a little, well, heartless when the show's producers decided not to have a road tour and opted instead to hunker down in Las Vegas.) Where in Berinstein's probing opus is a one-on-one with Avenue Q's advertising wizard, Drew Hodges of SpotCo, about his winning strategy and its aftermath? Also: Though Boy George graces the screen in his brilliant Taboo costumes, it's never explained that he's portraying the famous English performance artist and club habitué Leigh Bowery. And why isn't The Boy From Oz's Hugh Jackman, perhaps the biggest story of the performing year, sent out for another bow?

To end on a note of full disclosure: This reviewer shows up in full-length profile as an unidentified extra in the Tony press room segment. He's glad to be associated, even if only in a minimal way, with this welcome valentine to musicals and to the magic and marketing of live theater. Dori Berinstein has a history of caring about Broadway's future -- she was a co-founder of the talented-kid-friendly Camp Broadway -- and now she has put her cameras where her heart is.