A new documentary reminds us of the richness and magic of live theater.
The day the lights went dark on Broadway was the day I truly understood we were in a pandemic.
It was March 12, 2020 and all of Broadway’s 41 theaters were ordered to close, and with them went the livelihoods of thousands of theater artists — and the hopes and dreams of millions of people. Yes, millions. During the 2018/19 season alone, approximately 12 million people attended Broadway musicals.
Now, from September, Broadway theaters can reopen at full capacity, and dozens of Broadway shows have confirmed they will return this fall. As a New Yorker, it almost feels to me as though the city has been in a coma for 18 months and this represents its beating heart, revived.
A wonderful way to remind yourself of the rich significance and history of Midtown Manhattan’s world famous 20 blocks is to watch the documentary film On Broadway. An all-star cast of Broadway legends including Helen Mirren and Hugh Jackman reveal what Broadway means to them, and Sir Ian McKellen and James Corden remind us of the other times Broadway was under threat and yet came back from the brink. Gentrification, the AIDS pandemic, and the invasion of mega-budget British musicals have all threatened to wipe out this form of theater and yet … here we are again.
This film is a treat for anyone who bought a ticket to a show and left with a spring in their step or their heart stirred, and the feeling that they understood this thing called life a little better after sitting in the dark with their fellow mortals for a few hours. While many people have theorized that going to theater is like secular church, I think it’s more like entering a dream state, in public, with our clothes on, and a bunch of strangers we come to know intimately.
Helen Mirren notes: “It’s ridiculous, when you think about it. I mean…what a weird thing to do.” And yet what an intensely essential thing, we have come to realize, after 18 months of lockdown.
“Somehow, after months and months without live performances of any kind, the idea doesn’t seem all that weird,” says On Broadway director and producer Oren Jacoby. “A life-long New Yorker, I’m one of the weirdos who have been mesmerized over the years by actors like Mirren baring their souls on a Broadway stage and helping to make Times Square one of the most popular destinations in the world.”
In advance of my re-entry into New York public life this fall, On Broadway is the documentary I needed to see. Lovers of live performance and theater history will relish the archival footage of Arthur Miller and demonstrators valiantly trying to stop the demolition of beautiful old theaters, plus clips of iconic performances by Lin Manuel Miranda, Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters, James Earl Jones and Mandy Patinkin. Not to mention scenes from the incredible body of work by August Wilson.
Christine Baranski, Alec Baldwin, Alexandra Billings and John Lithgow share their experiences and views of an industry and art form that has been under threat before, but evolved and survived and always made a triumphant return with something new — from A Chorus Line to Hamilton.
On Broadway reveals how the last 50 years of The Great White Way’s history has also been the history of our culture — our desire to escape from it and our need to change it for the better. We go to Broadway because it entertains us. But we also go to see who we are and who we want to be.
The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner once wrote, “The foundation of acting is the reality of doing” but that this “doing” is framed around imaginary circumstances. Paradoxically, it is often that suspension of disbelief that shows us what we believe in more clearly. And that is an irresistible draw. As Ian McKellen says, Broadway promises the ultimate human encounter: “Come on, come in, come here… I’m going to give myself to you and you’re going to come and love me…”
On Broadway is now playing in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide. Click here to find a venue near you.