“I’m 56 years old. I’m mixed raced and transgender. I’ve survived addiction, homelessness and sex work; and here I am, sitting in a dressing room, opening a play on Broadway!” says performer Alexandra Billings in the documentary On Broadway.
The history of Broadway has been a story of boom and bust, struggle and reinvention, that mirrors the fate of New York itself and a core part of the queer story. Filmmaker Oren Jacoby gives us a potted history of modern Broadway from the late 60s to today, through the rough years of the 70s, its creative and popular revival, the British invasion and the Disney takeover.
On Broadway shows how the center of American theatre has risen and fallen over the decades as necessity proved the mother of invention time and time again. Giving an historical context to some of Broadway’s biggest and most influential shows like A Chorus Line, Cats, Amadeus, Rent, Angels In America and Hamilton you get to see how theatre has responded to the changing world, and how it has helped to cement social change. All this is told through the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Alec Baldwin, Christine Baranski, Hugh Jackman, Sonia Friedman, David Henry Hwang, Helen Mirren, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe and features archive material from other Broadway greats.
A lot of this will already be familiar to theatre-nerds, but as a general refresher, On Broadway works well. Understanding, for example, the rise of Andrew Lloyd-Webber in the 80s makes more sense when you see how AIDS had hit the Broadway community, opening the door for London’s hits to move over, or how the rough years of the early 70s made way for the experimentation of Sondheim.
Theatre has always been at the forefront of representation and setting a cultural agenda – putting queer/minority stories into the conversation, as well as being a safe space for queer people. The film shows the influence of LGBTQ+ creators and stories, and how hit shows like A Chorus Line, Angels In America and Rent helped bring our history into the mainstream.
While walking through decades of history, On Broadway also follows one play, The Nap, from first rehearsal to opening night. Starring the likes of Alexandra Billings (one of the films best commentators) and Ben Schnetzer, this comedy from the team behind London and Broadway smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors has all the hallmarks of a fresh hit. Produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Nicholas Hytner, The Nap featured a prominent transgender role for Billings. Tracing the show through to opening night helps give a modern context to the discussions of money and art in the film.
On Broadway sometimes feels like a showreel for New York and Broadway, lots of gloss and grand talk but doesn’t really delve very deeply into the issues at hand. Sadly, the film shys away from one harsh reality of Broadway. While we celebrate with The Nap on opening night, there is no mention of the fact it would close less than two months later. Good reviews and a top-notch creative team couldn’t make it a hit. As Broadway producer Robert Fox says, “It’s not called ‘show charity’, it’s show business!”
By Chad Armstrong
On Broadway has its New York Premiere on Monday November 11th at 7pm at IFC Center followed by two further festival screenings; Tuesday November 12th at 12.4pm at IFC Center and Monday November 11th at 9.30pm at Cinepolis Chelsea. For more details and to purchase tickets head to the DOC NYC website here. DOC NYC is America’s largest documentary festival and the tenth edition runs in New York 6th-15th November 2019.