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Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway

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The cast of Wicked in Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway (Regent)

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Director Dori Berinstein has looked behind the scenes of the fashion industry with her documentary Unzipped about designer Isaac Mizrahi. She has also worked on Broadway on such shows as Thoroughly Modern Millie . So for Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway , she combines her film and stage interests for an insiders look at the challenges, risks, joys, hard work, passion and dedication required to put a musical on Broadway.

For her documentary, Berinstein focuses on four shows from the 2003-2004 Broadway season, taking them pretty much from conception to production to the nail biting Tony Awards. Maybe her experience on Broadway provided her with the kind of insight needed to pick the right shows or maybe she was just lucky but the shows she ends up highlighting are ones that went on to both fame and infamy. She looks at the mega-musical Wicked ; the underdog puppet show Avenue Q ; the critics' darling Caroline, Or Change ; and the Rosie ODonnell/Boy George headline grabbing Taboo . All four would end up as Tony nominees. Berinstein mixes behind the scenes footage of rehearsals with interviews with the various artists as well as roundtables with New Yorks theater critics. It's an energetic collage that tries to provide insight into what this creative process is like.

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The Gypsy Robe on display in Showbusiness (Regent Releasing)

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So we get tidbits of Broadway superstition and tradition as she takes us backstage for the opening night ceremony of the Gypsy Robe. It's a gaudy, robe given to a member of the production, and then that person is required to bless the show and perform certain rituals to ensure success. We also get home videos from Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, the composers/lyricists for Avenue Q . These videos document their childhood urge to perform as well as their first attempts to sell the idea of a puppet musical for adults. Avenue Q provides the film with some of its best scenes because Marx and Lopez seem so genuinely surprised by their success and the whole process. They continually pinch themselves to see if it's all real. They're like excited little kids, and they remind us of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland who would always be gathering up folks from the neighborhood to put on a show.

In contrast, Taboo features veteran performers Rosie ODonnell (the plays Broadway producer) and Boy George (whos the subject of the play) who have had a lot of experience with fame and the media. But I don't think even they were prepared for the amount of scandal-monging press their show would receive. Reports of backstage fighting and temper tantrums don't seem borne out by Berinstein's footage, but a couple of the critics seem ravenous to find something sensational to report before the play even opens. Taboo provides some of the most bittersweet material as Euan Morton, who plays Boy George onstage, ponders what to do after the show closes. But while critics slam the plays, fans of the show reveal how they have attended dozens of times, shelling out up to hundreds of dollars for tickets.

There are also intimate and moving interviews with Tonya Pinkins, the star of Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change . Pinkins plays a maid in the small but powerful musical about Kushner's memories of his childhood and a maid who worked for his family. Pinkins discusses the hard knocks she's endured in her own life and how she hopes those experiences will help her bring Caroline's own hardships and rage to life.

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Jeff Whitty, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez of Avenue Q appear in Showbusiness.

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Both Caroline, or Change and Avenue Q are shows that some critics imply might be better suited to off-Broadway. The budgets of these two shows is just a fraction of the $14 million spent on Wicked , which arrives on Broadway with big scale effects and massive production numbers. The documentary looks to the business end of Broadway as well as to the creative to ponder questions about the future of musicals theater. Berinstein is currently involved in a production of Legally Blonde , which is a stage musical adaptation of a popular film. That may have prompted her to consider how the theatrical process compares to Hollywood. The conclusion she and some of the New York theater crowd reach is that Broadway is becoming more like Hollywood with big-budget, effects driven productions like Wicked mimicking the Hollywood blockbuster, while Caroline, or Change is like a small art house film, critically acclaimed but challenged to find a large audience. But Avenue Q at $3.5 million proves to be a David against the bigger budgeted Goliaths. And no one seems more stunned by Avenue Q's success than Jeff Marx's father, and his response to his son's Tony nomination provides the film with an unexpectedly hilarious moment.

When interviewed in a group, the critics are sometime a snide group. But alone, some of the critics reveal a more supportive tone. New York Times' Ben Brantley discusses his appreciation for Avenue Q and the fact that it is trying to appeal to a younger audience--people who grew up in Sesame Street --and that's something Broadway needs to do if it wants to keep going. He also references the fact that for these under-fortysomethings, Sesame Street and the Muppets were their form of musical theatre. It's a credit to Berinstein that she includes the critics as well as such other peripheral Broadway folks as show groupies. The footage she gets of each is so rich that it almost throws off the movie's balance.

Showbusiness is a lively and entertaining documentary. It is not as provocative or insightful a work as it might be but it does try to cover a lot of ground to provide us with a fascinating portrait of the musical theater world. If you're a Broadway musical fan you'll probably relish this documentary and if you're not a fan, there's still enough fascinating detail to grab your interest.

Showbusiness: The Road to Broadway (rated PG) is essentially a valentine to a profession that filmmaker Dori Berinstein loves and admires. San Diego audiences will have a chance to see Avenue Q on stage when the Old Globe Theater presents the West Coast premiere on June 30. [Note: please see comment posted below for more information.]

Companion viewing: Babes in Arms, The Muppet Show (TV series), The Wizard of Oz, Summer Stock, Kiss Me Kate

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