ON BROADWAY – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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With Labor Day so close, and if you’d didn’t feel confident about a summer vacation, then here’s a bit of help in planning a Fall getaway. Sure, this could be considered a feature-length travelogue, but it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s certainly a history lesson with lots of “talking heads” sharing great insights and anecdotes. But really it’s a celebration and appreciation of a place we might not have fully embraced until it was withheld from us for nearly a year and a half. Ah, but it’s officially reopening this month, so prior to your travel itinerary why not head off to the local multiplex for a look back on all the wonders to be savored ON BROADWAY.

Talk about a “love letter”! The “big names” (above the play titles on the marquees) start things off with their childhood dreams and remembrances before the filmmakers begin hopping about, though there are lots of “ID” labels and dates (1969, 1972, etc.) for the stage novices. Now as for the history I mentioned, they really touch on the 1930s to 1960s “golden age”. Since there weren’t “archived performance videos” (which I believe is the standard now for all shows), we get some clips from the Hollywood adaptations, from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE to WEST SIDE STORY. The story of the big revival really begins with the slump of the late sixties into the early seventies as most of the big showcase theatres were dark as the 42nd Street hub was taken over by crime, porn, and decay. It’s amazing to see the NYC-funded printed brouchures warning tourists to avoid the area before 6 PM, adorned with a sketch of the Grim Reaper’s cowled head. This leads into the “sidebar’ on the theatre owners, the Shuberts, and the boardroom battles that “busted up” the near-monopoly. An abudance of new archival footage and a few home movies takes us back to that era, beginning with “Pippin’ and the Public Theatres, along with shows “workshopped” out of town. Several iconicic shows are highlighted as milestones and “turning points’, particularly “A Chorus Line”, “Rent” and “Hamilton”. As things were changing for the better, the “dark times” are not neglected. Beloved theatres, including the original home to “Death of a Salesman” are not spared by the wrecking ball. Even more devastating is the AIDS crisis of the mid 1980s. Happily we do get to see much of the original cast actors on stage in video clips along with performances on the Tony Awards. Plus, to give the film a bit of urgency and a sense of the current period, the cameras follow an original play, “The Nap” as it prepared to make its bow. Oh the “giddy tension”!

Needless to say, this fun flick is pure nirvana to theatre geeks, though there’s a lot in there for us “movie geeks” since, in its final chapter, the “white way’ needs big “stars”, especially those from the small and big screens, to get people to plunk down the big bucks for tickets (the top price for tix in the late 60s was $9.90). It’s compelling stuff, even though there’s not a clear villain, although many stage vets are not enamored of the British transplants that led to “spectacle shows’, or those gentrifying the area (one show scribe seems to prefer the aging hookers to the neon-lit chain shops). It’s great to hear from Hugh Jackman and Helen Mirren, but some of today’s Broadway royalty (Nathan Lane, Sutton Foster) are notable for their absence. At least the directors and writers are well represented with a keen focus on the prolific, much-missed August Wilson. My only complaint about director Oren Jacoby’s obvious “labor of love” is that it aspires to take on too much. The mounting of “The Nap’ is worthy of its own feature doc as we’re not with them for the length out-of-town “try-outs” or the previews before opening night. Ditto for a flick just with the actor interviews. Or on the “Brit explosion”. Ah, but what’s there is so “choice”, with the makers really trying to illustration the whole share experience of “live theatre”. And with its “happy ending” postscript, we even get something of an optimistic conclusion. And can’t we all use that now? That’s especially true for those folks following a dream that lands them ON BROADWAY.

3 Out of 4

ON BROADWAY opens everywhere in select theatres and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.