Movie review: ‘On Broadway’ celebrates the New York theater

Like many people, I miss live theater.

After all the adjustments we have had to make since March 2020, some may not consider live performance an essential experience. But it matters to me. And hearing that Broadway plans to reopen – with necessary restrictions – gives me hope that the sun will come out tomorrow as that girl named Annie once sang on a New York stage.

Until then, the compelling documentary “On Broadway” offers a memorable journey through all the ways that live theater can overcome a range of challenges. Filmed shortly before the pandemic began, this rich review of the last 50 years of New York theater reminds us what we have missed as well as warns how fragile live performance can be. No one appearing in the film could have known how meaningful such words of caution would be today, when we hope that Broadway can return to its role in world culture.

Featuring a rich collection of sequences from stage classics – and thoughtful commentary from stage luminaries – “On Broadway” quickly lets us know it will share more than a review of legendary hits. Filmmaker Oren Jacoby focuses his cameras on the real crises Broadway has faced over the years, as an institution and a business, ultimately celebrating the determination that ensures theater will continue to represent many voices. We are immediately captivated when, in the opening moments, Helen Mirren describes Broadway’s “romantic, heroic, legendary feel,” while director George C. Wolfe describes how theater becomes a “church where people feel empowered by what happens on stage,” and director Lynne Meadow suggests we celebrate “how Broadway reflects who we are as Americans." 

This aspirational view of Broadway balances with, as Wolfe describes, the commercial realities that demand “we pay the rent every day.” John Lithgow returns to the economic challenges Broadway faced 50 years ago when theaters found themselves surrounded by a dingy Times Square. As the neighborhood considered how to clean up outside, creators began to push the boundaries of what musicals could say and how they would make us think. “Company” and “Follies” – ground-breaking Stephen Sondheim musicals in 1970 and 1971 – revealed a Broadway we had not imagined while Bob Fosse pushed the expectations for dance with “Pippin” in 1972 and Michael Bennett celebrated the diversity of Broadway in the landmark “A Chorus Line” two years later. These milestones remind us how, each time Broadway faces challenge, its creators step up, and audiences applaud, from the arrival of “Cats” in 1982 to the restoration of 42nd Street with “The Lion King” in 1997 and the reimagining of musical boundaries with “Hamilton” in 2015. For each generation new shows arrive just in time to remind us how much we need the magic live theater can deliver.

“On Broadway” brings us to the edge of our seats as we imagine what’s next for this art form we treasure and the experience we crave. I miss live theater and, thanks to “On Broadway,” I have a clearer idea of what I cherish. And how good it will feel to again walk into a theater, check my Playbill, and watch the house lights dim.

“On Broadway” runs 1 hour, 22 minutes, and is currently playing in theaters.

More Information

Film Summary: On Broadway

Content: High. The ups and downs of Broadway theater are beautifully captured in a documentary that discovers the soul of this essential art form.
Entertainment: High. Filmmaker Oren Jacoby lovingly explores what makes the New York theater experience so essential.
Message: High. No matter how much you may miss theater, this film will prompt you to check for tickets as soon as you feel comfortable.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to visit this extraordinary part of American culture is always worth the time.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You will have a lot to discuss after watching this film and, perhaps, considering when you are ready again to take in a show.