Movie review: 'ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway'

Musical TheaterEntertainmentMoviesMusic IndustryDocumentary (genre)Wicked (musical)

3 stars (out of four)

What's the historical import of the day they first spray-painted Idina Menzel's face green for "Wicked"? Non-existent? Worthy of affectionate recording? Comparable to the collapse of the Berlin Wall?

How you answer that question will determine the depth of your response to Dori Berinstein's insider documentary "ShowBusiness," a rich, savvy, carefully documented hagiography to the artists, producers, critics and other flim-flam merchants who ply their trade on those dozen romantic blocks in Midtown Manhattan.

For enthusiastic followers of that unique Broadway fusion of art, terror and commerce, this is without question the most complete and revealing documentary of the contemporary Broadway gestalt. Berinstein enjoyed remarkable access to the long, creative process of four diverse Broadway shows from the 2003-'04 season--"Avenue Q," "Wicked," "Caroline, or Change," and (most interestingly, given its bitter failure) the Boy George musical, "Taboo." Her price for this kind of intimate access, it appears, was her overall acknowledgment that her variously confident, nervous, brilliant, neurotic, desperate subjects are doing work of cultural--maybe even spiritual--import. And who's to say they're not?

The film has minor irritations--too much footage of press events, staged, awkward clutches of unusually well-coiffed New York critics sharing things they'd never otherwise share with each other over dinner, and repetitive references to processes that are all, of course, "extraordinary" to the people within them. And there's no deep probing of Broadway's place in the culture at large. But to her great credit, Berinstein is willing to include the historically injudicious quote, and linger on the faces of pain, betrayal and failure.

Much of this strikingly human, rapidly paced and laudably well-rounded film is fascinating. All the important heads talk from every side of the Rialto. Along with extensive, candid footage on and off the stages, you see the first workshop of "Avenue Q" and the composers' pre-Tonys limo ride, the emotionally angry demise of "Taboo," the guttural energy of the composer Jeanine Tesori in the rehearsal room (and in her apartment with her family), and the cold winter wind that invariably blows through Broadway in January, killing off some of those precious but weak babies.

cjones5@tribune.com

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'ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway'

Directed by Dori Berinstein; screenplay by Berinstein and Richard Hankin; photographed by Alan S. Deutsch; edited by Adam Zucker; music by Jeanine Tesori; produced by Berinstein. Featuring Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Tony Kushner, John Lahr and others. A Regent Releasing release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG (for language and some sexual references).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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