Broadway Or Bust 

Ever since some Roman emperor stuck his thumb sideways to decide how to reward a gladiator, the biggest problem with talent competition shows has been the judging. Sample a typical Project Runway, and you’d think arts criticism is purely about personal taste. Sure, that taste has been cultivated by years of experience and a pragmatic understanding of how fashion realistically works for a mass market, but it’s hard to believe any thoughtful critique underlies the open-mic insult-comic riffing of Michael Kors. “It’s not aesthetically pleasing” is a fine conclusion, but until Nina Garcia explains why, it’s just a crackling sound bite.

That’s part of what I love about Broadway Or Bust. The first episode, “Casting Call,” features some of the best arts criticism I’ve ever seen on a reality show. The 60 winners of the National High School Musical Theater Awards (well, as underdog Joshua tells us each episode, 59 and a runner-up) are gathered around a piano where Michael Feinstein is preparing to give them advice for their solo competition. Go-getter Nicholas sings “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and when he finishes, Michael has two notes for him. The first is that Nicholas sang a wrong word, swapping “the” for “that” in the lyrics, “We may never, never meet again / on the bumpy road to love.” But Michael isn’t just playing stickler. The forceful “that” is a Sinatra-ization, a hipper take on a classical song. The second note, as I understand it, is that Nicholas’ peaks were half a step too low, which undermines the contrast that’s central to the song. So it’s not just that Nicholas failed to sing the exact song that the Gershwins wrote. It’s that his two little divergences affect its very unity. The critique comes from the work, not just the judge. Fancy that. 

Episode two, “Boot Camp,” goes the other way with a number of totally arbitrary calls. Joshua has prepared two songs, and his coach tells him her instinct is to pick the Italian one. Kiesha the choreographer keeps saying things like, “I just feel like you should be here,” as she arranges the cast on the stage. At the end, the sea of judges arbitrarily sort the kids into tiers with no on-screen explanation. That’s partly to keep the final results a bit of a mystery, but as the big show approaches, there’s less time for careful explanation.

The judging in tonight’s finale is almost too transparent. A judge talks about how Evan turned a one-note song into a routine that keeps upping the ante whereas Nicolette couldn’t pull off a similar feat. He also talks about how another singer made it feel like she was coming up with the words to her song on the spot. But the actual deliberation is more impulsive, and the final selection a matter of ranking. Ultimately, this isn’t about criticism. As people keep saying, it’s about connecting with the audience and taking them on an emotional journey. It sounds like mumbo jumbo to the skeptic on his laptop who was excited to see a shred of considered arts criticism, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by Broadway Or Bust.

Naturally, the finale takes on the tingling hyperawareness of the big game. There’s even a moment when the kids finally take the Broadway stage that recalls the Dillon Panthers walking onto their championship field. Even though there had only been two episodes to invest in the characters before then, the show has translated the real-life whirlwind of a week-long Broadway boot camp into a documentary series so well that it’s hard not to become attached to some of the personalities. At the very least I wouldn’t mind hearing Evan sing more of “Magic Foot” or “Master Of The House.”

I’m only now realizing how upfront Broadway Or Bust has been about affective memory. In “Casting Call,” when a director describes the goal to connect with an audience, he explains that connection as more suggestive than explicit. It’s about getting an audience member to think of something personal in his own life that corresponds to the song. In the finale, Drew, a student from Texas, says he imagines his song from Dracula The Musical as a hypothetical conversation about pulling the plug on his girlfriend in the hospital. The whole show operates on that affective memory, evoking that foreign exchange program to Germany or recalling the state spelling bee. That’s why the personal touches are so important, like the kids backstage lip-syncing as a friend sings “Over The Rainbow.” Every so often, there’s a montage of the students playing with handheld cameras and faux-interviewing their friends. The clean, steady look of Broadway Or Bust suddenly takes on a home-video quality, but it’s the closest we get to seeing that momentous week through the eyes of the rising stars.

The other success of Broadway Or Bust is the way it opens up this niche world. It’s so rare to see the inside of a Broadway rehearsal room that I just called it a Broadway rehearsal room. Just watching the backstage tour is interesting, as a stage manager leads the cast from one side of the stage to the other (it’s more complicated than it sounds). And when the audience respond to the performers, whether blinking to blot the tears or erupting into a standing ovation, the camera shows us audience members what that looks like from the stage.

And then it’s over. The winners win, everyone performs a closing number, and they all walk off-camera out the stage door. Broadway Or Bust isn’t a great leap forward for the talent competition show. For one thing, the show repeats multiple lines of voice-over in every episode, as if this weren’t the age of DVRs, DVDs, and streaming sites. But, for at least one audience member, it connected.

Stray observations:

  • The winners are: Joshua the self-proclaimed underdog and Elizabeth from California, both of whom were splendid. I was rooting for M. Thénardier, but his narrative is about compensating for his relatively unaccomplished singing with his character work, so I figured he’d have to be happy with being a finalist.
  • The feel-good mandate for Broadway Or Bust precludes any villains or marginally dislikable characters, but it’s refreshing to see competitors who are all sincerely humbled by one another’s talent.
  • Another Friday Night Lights evocation: Kiesha’s pre-show pep talk has the look and tone of the Panthers’ pre-game prayer.
  • One last, great, spontaneous moment: It’s raining as the kids board the bus to the big show, so one boy starts singing “Singin’ In The Rain” to the camera. Unfortunately, no splashing.