Of all the risky pop-art endeavors, mounting a Broadway musical may be the riskiest. Between the workshops, out-of-town tryouts, and previews, it's easy to lose whatever spark of inspiration got such a massive operation underway in the first place. In Dori Berinstein's documentary ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway, she follows four shows as they weather the 2003-2004 Broadway season, from opening night to Tony night. Some of the most fascinating footage comes from the rehearsals, when everyone's full of hope and anxiety over what they're trying to do. At one point, the star of an impending flop turns to the camera and says, "This is that place where you don't know yet what you have." Meanwhile, his preview run looms, and the bills are piling up with no box-office receipts to offset them.
The flop in question is Taboo, the semi-autobiographical Boy George musical whose modestly successful London run inspired Rosie O'Donnell to finance a disastrous Broadway engagement—albeit one that still had its diehard fans. Either through keen intuition or great luck, Berinstein documents that notorious boondoggle alongside three other prime examples of Broadway fodder: the mega-musical Wicked, the left-field cult hit Avenue Q, and the underattended critics' darling Caroline, Or Change. Berinstein follows each through their stages of development, documenting arcane Broadway rituals like the wearing of "the gypsy robe," and catching serendipitous moments like an awkward back-alley encounter between Boy George and two fawning fans who just happen to be the composers of Avenue Q, playing next door.
ShowBusiness is a smart, highly entertaining piece of cinema-reportage, but it never quite rises to the level of penetrating insight or emotional catharsis. It's a treat to see so much performance footage from the musicals in question, but it seems like a wasted opportunity not to use the music more purposefully, to build to one of those transcendent moments unique to the theater. Also, while Berinstein is wise to consider peripheral Broadway phenomena like show groupies and bitchy critics, the footage she gets of each is so rich that it almost throws off the movie's balance. Really, ShowBusiness could've easily been solely about the divide between those two camps: the fans who buy $100 tickets for every weekend of a show's run, and the writers who pre-snub everything with a snippy, "Where's the audience for that?" And in between: a lot of talented actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and directors, all of whom could be making a lot more money in other fields, but have had the Broadway bug since high-school drama class, and just can't beat it.