Broadway's bright lights shine again 18 months after lockdown

The 2019 documentary film "On Broadway" acts like theatrical foreplay for non-NYC audiences.

broadway's bright lights shine: Pic of Sir Ian McKellen holding his hands out to the camera in joy
Image: IMDb

The 2019 documentary film “On Broadway” is more than pure joy for anyone who loves theatre; it is an extraordinary reminder of live theatre’s vitality. And there is no better time to remind yourself of theatre’s mystical charm than right now. Broadway’s bright lights shine again, a welcome sight for LGBTQ+ eyes around the world.

The story that “On Broadway” tells incorporates the history of Times Square over the last 50 years. It also tells the story of how different sociocultural forces spark audience interest in new plays and vice versa. Think Michael Bennett’s workshop at New York’s Public Theater that gave us A Chorus Line. Or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop album that became Hamilton.


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Many familiar faces narrate “On Broadway,” beginning with Dame Helen Mirren. We also hear from George C. Wolfe, Christine Baranski, Sir Ian McKellan, and other stage veterans. Each one shares a unique perspective about the special sauce that makes a great story so appealing to a live audience.

Chronologically told, “On Broadway” jumps from A Chorus Line to Annie to Ain’t Misbehavin.’ In order to represent more than musicals, Broadway suddenly starts going to England to get plays and stars. This results in Amadeus and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Before long, the movie audience enters the Andrew Lloyd Webber phase of the film. Considering how much money Cats and Evita and The Phantom of the Opera have made, this makes sense. It also marks the beginning of an emphasis on extravaganza and spectacle among Broadway productions.

Of course, the next stop on the movie’s timeline is the AIDS crisis. A devastating moment in American theatre history, it did create a vacuum in the industry. It also led eventually to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which is described as “unapologetically political” and “unconditionally human.”

As the movie continues, the Broadway blockbusters keep getting bigger and bigger. First, there is Rent, credited with bringing young people back to the theatre. Next comes The Lion King, a Disney production characterized as family entertainment with costume masks and experimental puppetry. According to the movie, The Lion King has grossed 1.6 billion dollars at the box office. It is still running, and even as Broadway re-opens, The Lion King has many freshly sold-out shows.

“On Broadway” points out that the 2018-2019 season was its most successful one in history, with nearly 15 million people seeing a show in Times Square. Given that the pandemic forced all 41 Broadway theaters to close for 18 months, reopening will be a true test of pent-up demand.

All Broadway theatres now require proof of vaccination and masks are mandatory. Out of the COVID darkness, Broadway’s bright lights shine again.

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