“Without the theater, New York would somehow not be itself.” So says Ian McKellen at the start of the documentary “On Broadway.” Most of us who love the Great White Way, even those who might only have traveled there in their imaginations, would be hard-pressed to disagree.
The film is essentially about the seesawing fortunes of Broadway from the disastrous 1969-1972 era right up until just before the pandemic hit. The 2018-19 season, with around 15 million ticket buyers, was the most commercially successful in Broadway history. By the next year, COVID-19 had shut down all 41 theaters.
Directed by Oren Jacoby and largely assembled pre-pandemic, the film closes by briefly noting that the famed theater district reopens this September. Jacoby’s pitch is clear: Broadway has weathered near-collapse before, and will do so again.
Why We Wrote This
When Broadway reopens this fall, it won’t be the first time it’s staged a comeback. The new documentary “On Broadway” explores the resiliency of the theater – and why it matters in people’s lives today.
Especially for those unfamiliar with the magnitude of Broadway’s prior travails, the documentary – which contains extensive archival footage – will be something of an eye-opener. During the four years beginning in 1969, attendance dropped from 10 million to an all-time low of 4.8 million. A big reason for this calamity was the fall of the Broadway district itself: 42nd Street was thronged with prostitutes, sex shops, and drug dealers. Cleaning up the area was key to revitalizing theatergoing, but the painstaking process dragged on for years. Federal funding via then-President Gerald Ford for the near-bankrupt city was denied, as enshrined in the famous 1975 New York Daily News headline: “Ford to city: Drop dead.”
And yet, Broadway in that pre-AIDS era did manage to revive, in no small part by offering up shows that were first developed off-Broadway, most famously “A Chorus Line,” which transferred from Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Not only did it prove to be a Broadway smash, but it also provided Papp’s nonprofit company with a windfall he reportedly described as “the GDP of a small country.”
Although the documentary doesn’t mention it, this repertory theater-to-Broadway trajectory somewhat mirrored what was occurring in Hollywood at the same time, as studio moguls – realizing their big expensive productions were not connecting with mass audiences – opened their doors, at least for a time, to younger, edgier filmmakers. (It was easier to take creative chances when the financial stakes weren’t so high.)
Even established theatrical veterans like Stephen Sondheim benefited; his great “Sunday in the Park With George,” for example, originated off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. And the plays of the late August Wilson – who is briefly interviewed, as is his longtime director, the late Lloyd Richards – were largely developed at the Yale Repertory Theatre. “Angels in America” was generated off-Broadway. Not to mention, in our own time, “Hamilton.” (A great clip shows Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a rap number about the Founding Father for the Obamas in the White House before the idea for a full-fledged musical took hold.)
Jacoby is basically a celebrant of Broadway, and his film can get gushy. But even though it’s replete with talking heads, who would object to hearing from the likes of McKellen, John Lithgow, the late Hal Prince, or Helen Mirren (who admits a nostalgia for the seediness of the pre-renovated Broadway)? We see clips from the famous “I love New York” campaign, which was linked to Broadway’s revival. My favorite moment: Frank Langella, caped as Dracula, tells us, “I love New York. Especially ... in the evening.”
Jacoby doesn’t avoid examining the push-pull between art and commerce that has in some ways turned Broadway into more of a touristy amusement park than a hallowed theater haven. The empty blockbuster musicals and revivals, the overabundance of British imports, the preponderance of movie star casting, the sky-high ticket prices – all these and more are duly noted.
But despite all the glitz and money talk, what the film unequivocally conveys is the elemental reason we are drawn to the theater in the first place. The famed director George C. Wolfe describes it best as “that wonderful fragile feeling of a human being standing center stage and opening their heart and inviting me inside.”
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “On Broadway” is unrated and is available in theaters.