'On Broadway' review: A spirited celebration of live theater's return

Big names toast the return of Broadway productions in well-intentioned if scattered documentary.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Part modern history, part sparkling infomercial, “On Broadway” could have just as easily been called “Hooray for Broadway.” 

As a documentary film it’s an odd duck, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. A parade of famous faces — Hugh Jackman, Christine Baranski, Alec Baldwin, James Corden — hail the New York theater scene, as the past 50 or so years of Broadway history is laid out.

Ian McKellen in "On Broadway."

Once the center of American popular music, with theatrical productions consistently providing the country’s soundtrack, by the early '70s Times Square and the theater district had been taken over by porno houses, prostitutes and drug dealers. It was not a place you’d take your kid or a date to see a show.

The city's planners undertook a rebuild/cleanup and by the early '80s the area was wholesome enough to host a British invasion of hit musicals, beginning with “Cats’ and then “Nicholas Nickleby” which raked in serious money. This eventually led to the Disneyfication of the area — The Lion King meets Harry Potter at Spiderman’s house — which led to even more serious money.

Countless shows — “Miss Saigon,” “A Chorus Line,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” on and on — are mentioned (what, no “Wicked”?) and it’s all very fun and uplifting for theater types.

On the other hand it’s also something of a mess. Tucked into its scant 82-minute running time is also the preparation for a 2019 comic play, commentary on how ridiculous ticket prices have gotten and how many Broadway shows flop, a sudden tribute to August Wilson and the crucial role non-profits play in incubating productions. Most of the famous faces are Broadway people who are also big movie and TV people. Bernadette Peters wasn’t available?

Still, listening to Helen Mirren or Ian McKellen rhapsodize about the immediacy and intimacy of live theater is intoxicating. COVID-19 isn’t mentioned until the film’s final moments and its release is obviously timed to celebrate Broadway’s re-opening. On second thought, it probably should have been called “Welcome back Broadway.”

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'On Broadway'


Not rated

Running time: 82 minutes

At The Detroit Film Theatre