‘On Broadway’ Review: History and Celebrity, Stages and Lights

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A sunset view of the New York City skyline, speckled with lights, while George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays. Old Broadway marquees. Moving snapshots from a Broadway of more recent past — a flight of Hogwarts wizards, the swinging and snapping Temptations, the triumphant gaze of a brown-skinned Alexander Hamilton.

“On Broadway” sure knows how to work a theater-lover’s heart.

The documentary, directed by Oren Jacoby, welcomes stage stans into a brief but loving history of Broadway that still reckons, if somewhat myopically, with some of the less attractive parts of its past and present. The film provides a fascinating textbooklike chronology of these stages from the 1960s until today, how economic downturns and cultural shifts changed the star status and fiscal success of the Great White Way.

“On Broadway” could have easily become an extended post-pandemic “Broadway returns!” PSA, but thankfully Covid-19 is only mentioned in a brief epilogue of text. The story of these theaters’ resilience and resurrection throughout the pandemic is already there in the documentary’s account of Broadway’s long history of failures and deathbed moments, from which it always bounced back.

“The key to Broadway is every day you have to pay your rent,” the director George C. Wolfe says at some point in the film, discussing the colossal financial risks that shows face and how exorbitant ticket prices have become standard. That the documentary manages to critique its subject while still declaring its love is commendable. Broadway is, after all, a commercial enterprise. The documentary weaves an account of the 2018 opening of the play “The Nap” — from awkward, stilted early read-throughs to the big premiere — into its narrative to illustrate the uphill battle that is bringing a show to Broadway. “The Nap” is transparently used as the shining example of what Broadway is at its best: It’s an American premiere without any celebrities and a transgender lead actress — and it was a critical success.

But for the documentary’s heraldry of this little Broadway darling, it also isn’t that interested in it; the story of the play is briefly and haphazardly slotted into the larger narrative.

The bigger problem of “On Broadway” is that it is (understandably) seduced by Broadway’s superficial glamour. So there are mostly big names interviewed, like Helen Mirren, Hugh Jackman, John Lithgow and Alec Baldwin. The archival clips also focus just on familiar faces: James Earl Jones, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s hard for the film to see past the veil of celebrity that obscures the lesser known (and thus less glamorous) but vital theater-makers and artists who also make Broadway what it is.

And yet, by the end of the film, what stuck most with me was the fresh surge of affection I felt for Broadway — even the bad shows. Even the commercial schlock. At heart “On Broadway” may be just another valentine to Broadway, but I get it; I’m also happy to bask in the warmth of those lights.

On Broadway
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. In theaters.

Content source NYTIMES.COM

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