A show queen couldn’t possibly do any better for the Broadway beat than Dori Berinstein’s breezy, affectionate valentine to the Great White Way, a notable addition to highly under-populated field of documentaries about the inner mechanics of putting on a great big show. Well, in this case, there are four great big shows being dealt with, all musicals (though the film does at some intervals mention every other production that existed that season, even the now-legendary one-night shutdown of the Ellen Burstyn-starrer Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All): little-show-that-could-and-did Avenue Q, the behemoth little girls’ fantasy Wicked, the ambitious Caroline, or Change (transferred from the Public Theater downtown), and Taboo, the now-infamous $10-million money loser produced by everyone’s favorite View big-mouth. By smartly narrowing the focus to these four tuners, it allows the viewer to see people put their money where their mouth is, and from Avenue Q’s humble origins to none other than Universal Pictures helping foot Wicked’s $14 million bill, gives a healthy refresher on why it is such a gamble.
Following the principle participants of all four shows, and in a neat, snarky twist, the critics and columnists who might possibly tear into these shows on opening night, the tone of the film is slightly too genteel in some regards (why no clarification on Taboo’s backstage drama, for instance, when it is actually brought up within the picture?), and Berinstein, a current producer of the musical version of Legally Blonde, seems too reverent to get at some of the scabs that need picking. (And why Alan Cumming is so prevalent here is beyond reason, besides being this film’s producer, he has no direct correlation to anything depicted.) But the real strength of the film is showing that theater might possibly be the last unsullied visual artform we have, and the good-natured tone is actually a blessing when put side by side with people such as Michael Riedel, the New York Post’s resident worm and gossip maven, who amusingly is the butt of a few jokes here, all earned. And Boy George might possibly be the funniest bitchy queen alive: in one of the best moments, Taboo star Euan Morton (who plays George in the show) recounts Ms. O’Donnell’s visit to the London version that she loved and wanted to reproduce in the U.S., and how the Culture Club icon quipped after her departure, “We’re never going to see that dyke again.” And George C. Wolfe is every bit as delicious in some segments (where he rules the Caroline roost over such luminaries as a pre-Dreamgirls Anika Noni Rose), depicting just the right mix of bravado and insight you wish most film directors had.
Even in its super-tiny niche, ShowBusiness is mild fun, never really reaching the heights of, say, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s marvelous Moon Over Broadway, which had the warts-and-all coverage this documentary sometimes lacks. But its intentions are completely pure, and in its best moments, gives the viewer a peek inside theater’s ever-changing landscape without resorting to finger-pointing. With top tickets going for a whopping $111.25 these days, and several productions becoming more massive and corporate-sponsored, the shows depicted here might be seen one day as curios. Unless, of course, Julia Roberts happens to step on a stage again.