J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Coming Soon: Show Business


The modern musical and jazz have common roots in the Broadway revues of turn-of-the-century musicians like James Reese Europe and Joe Jordan. Both genres have evolved enormously in the succeeding years, but the Broadway musical still holds out the elusive promise of a potential blockbuster hit. Dori Berinstein’s new documentary ShowBusiness (no space) documents the pursuit of that goal during the 2003-2004 Broadway season (trailer here).

Business follows four shows—two hits and two misses—from workshops through the Tony Awards. The hits, Avenue Q and Wicked, are still running strong. The flops, Caroline, or Change and Taboo were not long for this world, but in the case of Taboo, the bad taste for many still lingers.

There is behind-the-scenes drama for each show, but Taboo, the Boy George musical produced by Rosie O’Donnell, was a circus. We see early scenes of hubris in which O’Donnell confidently predicts success and Boy George basically blows off the Avenue Q creators on Taboo’s opening night. Karma indeed.

Perhaps those who come off the worst are the various sarcastic critics whose prognostications made in Midtown restaurants are almost entirely wrong. At the start of the season, no critic (except Ben Brantley of The Times) has much faith in Q, and a quick demise is predicted for Wicked. Michael Riedel of The New York Post in particular, comes in for some lumps for his columns detailing the chaos of Taboo, but that seems to overstate his influence in the show’s closing.

Of the four shows we see in depth, Q is clearly the most engaging, and its creators have a goofy charm that contrasts with the corporate professionalism of the crowd pleasing Wicked. Caroline showed a great deal of potential, including an entertaining score from Jeanine Tesori, who also arranged music for the film. However, there seemed to be a strident edge in the performances which my have doomed it with Broadway audiences. Despite some half-hearted praise for Taboo late in the film, it was clearly a train wreck. After screening Business one comes to the conclusion that market forces picked the right winners and losers during the ’03-04 season. (Although, I would argue Bombay Dreams, also from that season, deserved a longer run.)

Berinstein and her crew had fly-on-the wall access, which allowed them to capture some fascinating scenes. It also benefits from occasional commentary from actor and co-producer Alan Cumming. At times Business is quite funny (if snarky), but the filmmakers clearly have a genuine affection for the theater, which is why they seem to fall in love with the underdogs of Avenue Q. Ultimately, it is a New York success story that anyone who has attended a Broadway show in recent years will enjoy. It premieres tonight in New York (of course) and starts its regular run on May 11th.

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