Keeping a keen eye on both the showmanship of Broadway and the business behind it, Dori Berinstein's documentary ShowBusiness, tracks the four contenders for the 2003-4 season's Best Musical Tony. As her camera documents the dreams, schemes, backstage strategy, and back breaking work, each show develops its own distinct personality. Brit import Taboo is the plucky outsider whose tabloid-tempting offstage starpower ( producer Rosie O' Donnell and composer Boy George) overshadows Broadway newbie Euan Morton's talents; Public Theater alum Caroline, or Change is the gifted child whose beauties may prove too rareified, despite all comeback star Tonya Pinkin's earthiness can do to ground it; Wicked's the blustering extrovert that the critics hate but in which the kids discover hidden depths; and Avenue Q-here comes the spoiler if you slept through the 2004 awards-is the wry low-budget Gen X underdog that bucks conventional wisdom, beats the odds and wins the prize.
While the mounting Tony tension gives this film its force, seeing the different paths each musical follows to maturity fascinates, as performers like Idina Menzel and Raul Esparza offer insider perspective on the developing shows. Herself a Broadway producer (Legally Blonde, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Berinstein got astonishing access to the performers, as well as to experts at the titular business. In addition to scenes of hardworking hopefuls like Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner doggedly plunking out phrases on the piano or the Avenue Q team reworking their rhymes, there's footage of industry professionals like uber-publicist Chris Boneau weighing in on how to win a Tony, and, perhaps the biggest coup of all, several roundtables with the top theater critics- who prove as clueless as anyone else.
However much purists complain that frantic Tony competition reduces art to mere horseracing, Berinstein's movie reveals at all levels of the business a passion that never doubts that the quest for a great musical is profoundly worthwhile. And the final lesson may be that there is life beyond the Tony. This season, Taboo's Morton returned to off-Broadway in Howard Katz, Caroline, or Change has won the London Critics' Circle Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical, and the shows Ms. Pinkin is on Broadway in August Wilson's Radio Golf and both the critically despised Wicked and the acclaimed Avenue Q are still going strong on Broadway, with national tours.
ShowBusiness is set to open in New York on May 11; other cities to follow.