“Without the theater, New York would in a way not be itself. This is what Ian McKellen says at the start of the documentary “On Broadway”. Most of us who love the Great White Way, even those who have only traveled it in our imaginations, would be hard-pressed to disagree.
The film is essentially about Broadway’s checkered fortunes from the disastrous era of 1969-1972 until just before the pandemic struck. The 2018-19 season, with around 15 million ticket buyers, was the most commercially successful in Broadway history. The following year, COVID-19 closed all 41 theaters.
Directed by Oren Jacoby and largely assembled before the pandemic, the film ends by briefly noting that the famous Theater District reopens in September. Jacoby’s speech is clear: Broadway has already nearly collapsed and will do it again.
Why we wrote this
When Broadway reopens this fall, it won’t be the first time it’s made a comeback. The new documentary “On Broadway” explores the resilience of theater – and why it matters in people’s lives today.
Especially for those unfamiliar with the extent of Broadway’s past struggles, the documentary – which contains plenty of archival footage – will be a bit of a revelation. In the four years starting in 1969, attendance fell from 10 million to an all-time low of 4.8 million. One of the main reasons for this calamity was the downfall of the Broadway neighborhood itself: 42nd Street was full of prostitutes, sex shops and drug dealers. Cleaning up the area was essential to revitalizing the theater, but the painstaking process took years. Federal funding through then-President Gerald Ford for the near-bankrupt city was denied, as the famous New York Daily News headline from 1975 states: “Ford to city: Drop dead.”
And yet Broadway in that pre-AIDS era managed to revive, largely by offering shows that were first developed off of Broadway, the more famous “A Chorus Line,” which was transferred from the Public Theater to Joseph Papp. Not only did this turn out to be a hit on Broadway, it also provided Papp’s nonprofit company with a windfall he would have described as “the GDP of a small country.”
Although the documentary does not mention it, this trajectory of repertory theater on Broadway somewhat mirrored what was happening in Hollywood at the same time, as the studio moguls – realizing their big, expensive productions were not connecting with audiences. mass – have opened their doors, at least for a while, to younger and more daring filmmakers. (It was easier to take creative risks when the financial stakes weren’t so high.)
Even established theater veterans like Stephen Sondheim have benefited from it; his big “Sunday in the Park With George”, for example, hails from Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. And the plays by the late August Wilson – who is briefly interviewed, as is his longtime director, the late Lloyd Richards – have been developed extensively at the Yale Repertory Theater. “Angels in America” was generated off Broadway. Not to mention, in our time, of “Hamilton”. (An excellent clip shows Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a rap act about the founding fathers of the Obamas in the White House before the idea of a full-fledged musical took hold.)
Jacoby is basically a Broadway celebrant, and his movie can get gushing. But even though it’s teeming with talking heads, who would object to hearing from people like McKellen, John Lithgow, the late Hal Prince or Helen Mirren (who admits nostalgia for the seedy look of pre-renovated Broadway)? We see clips from the famous “I love New York” campaign, which was linked to the Broadway revival. My favorite moment: Frank Langella, disguised 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 a more touristy theme park than a hallowed theater paradise. Empty blockbuster musicals and covers, the glut of British imports, the preponderance of movie star casting, sky-high ticket prices – all of this and more are duly noted.
But despite all the glitz and money talk, what the film unequivocally conveys is the fundamental reason we’re drawn to the theater in the first place. Famous director George C. Wolfe best describes it as “that wonderful, fragile feeling of a human being standing in the center of the stage and opening his heart and inviting me inside.”
Peter Rainer is The Monitor’s film critic. “On Broadway” is unrated and is available in theaters.