On Oct. 12, 2019, a peppy little documentary about the ups and downs of the last 50 years on Broadway premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival. The movie ended on a high note: The 2018/19 season had been the best in the history of the Great White Way, with more than 15 million tickets sold. Broadway was back, baby!
Exactly five months later, the entire district went dark for a month, to deal with rising cases of COVID-19. The shutdown would eventually stretch to a year and a half. But the show must go on, and since September Broadway theatres have been slowly reopening.
Oren Jacoby’s On Broadway doesn’t deal with that fascinating final chapter, but it does present a lively walk through the history of the district since the late 1960s. That’s a grim time to begin – between 1968 and 1972, attendance of Broadway shows dropped by 50%. People were afraid of muggings and worse if they ventured into the seedy Times Square area.
But each time Broadway seems to be down for the count, something comes along to rescue it. In 1975 it was A Chorus Line , a massively popular musical that also proved that productions could begin off-Broadway as not-for-profits, before making it big.
Later that decade, the I Love New York ad campaign played up the theatre. The ’80s brought smash hits from London, like Phantom and Cats . In the ’90s, Disney helped clean up the neighbourhood in advance of The Lion King . Recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton gave Broadway a pop-culture boost.
There’s a bit of hand-wringing about exorbitant ticket prices, and a few old stagers like Helen Mirren talking wistfully about the bad old days when rats and prostitutes stalked the streets. But the overall tone is upbeat. Though I question the decision to intersperse history with behind-the-scenes footage from a new play called The Nap , especially given that the unfortunately named comedy ultimately ran for just 53 performances. (Did it put people to sleep?)
Still, as a celebration of theatre, featuring clips of everything from Evita to Shrek the Musical , On Broadway is hard to fault. Without saying so openly, it suggests that the pandemic will ultimately be remembered as just one more bump in the road, on the way to another happy ending.
On Broadway opens Nov. 12 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers cinema, and on demand through hotdocs.ca.
3 stars out of 5