Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Film: The New Documentary, “Broadway Rising,” About Broadway and the Pandemic Shutdown, Reflects on How Lives Have Changed For Theater Workers and Theatergoers

Broadway Rising (c) Vertical

Film: Broadway Rising 
Streaming On Demand 

This is not going to be the usual The Interested Bystander review. This review website was born out of the Covid pandemic when Broadway and other New York theaters were starting to reopen. I debated if I should narrow my focus to just films (I have been writing about film at Film Score Monthly magazine since 2000) or just theater (I moved to New York to be a playwright and have served on many award bodies in my career), but I ultimately decided to do both. Since launching over a year ago, I have sometimes regretted this decision as there have been weeks in which I couldn’t give several shows or films the proper coverage. I am just one of a two-man team, the other being my editor (whose only reward is maybe a couple off-Broadway shows a month with the occasional well-deserved dinner maybe twice a year). But as one of the few Asian critics in either medium, I thought I would at least try to do both, at least at the start. Now, over a year later, since the start of my endeavor, comes a wonderful new documentary film,

“Broadway Rising,” which takes a look back at the pandemic closing of all Broadway shows in 2020, focusing on some of the human and organizational casualties and on resilient artists who suddenly found themselves with no income, no health insurance and no contact with friends outside of a computer screen. I decided that along with reviewing Amy Rice’s doc and the issues it does and does not bring up, I would try to give a little mini documentary of my life since I started this site as well. 

“Broadway Rising” starts with the last time Broadway shut down for an unprecedented two days, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Broadway stars and non-stars got together to show their resilience by banding together and singing the “nothing will keep our city down” anthem, “New York, New York.” This shutdown is, of course, nothing compared to what followed Thursday, March 12, 2020. The day before, when it was announced that ushers at a couple Broadway shows had tested positive for Covid-19, it was the first time we had heard the Broadway bubble had been breached, and I knew that there was no way Broadway could stay open after that. I was at 2nd Stage Theater seeing, of all things, a musical called “We’re All Going to Die,” when I saw the alert. After the show, I hugged my friend (who will become my aforementioned editor a year later), knowing we would probably not see each other in person for a long time. And, so we wouldn’t. 

Back to “Broadway Rising,” Rice does have a nice cross-section of people to focus on, including producer Kevin McCullum, who was getting ready for opening night of the musical, “Six,” with gifts and party preparations, when he hears the New York City mayor’s news conference that limits the number of people at a social gathering. Needless to say, whatever that number was, it would be exceeded by even the smallest of Broadway houses. 

Broadway Rising (c) Vertical

The owner of Winzer Dry Cleaners, whose main clientele are Broadway shows, had to decide what to do with his small staff once the shows stopped running and thus, no income. And then there was Peter McIntosh. I was very glad to see him show up on screen. I wasn’t sure if Rice could get the usher labeled “Broadway Patient Zero. ” Thankfully, McIntosh turned out to be a good sport to be interviewed and of course no one blamed him.

Other people in the doc who got Covid early on include dancer Adam Perry from the musical “Frozen,” the much beloved doorman Ernie Frost Paylor of the Broadhurst Theatre where “Jagged Little Pill” was playing, the Tony-nominated actor Nick Cordero, whose hospitalization and health status we see mostly in news reports and then there’s producer Tom Kirdahy, who was most concerned about his husband, the playwright Terrence McNally (who I had the honor to work with decades ago). McNally had recently battled lung cancer, and the one thing we knew about Covid was that its primary target is the lungs. 

The documentary then shifts gears a bit to Black Lives Matter and the protests that occurred during this global pandemic. Rice’s focus on the protests was to give voice to black artists, who saw this time of reckoning as a chance to talk about the systemic racism in the Broadway community. With contributions by actor and director Ruben Santiago Hudson and playwrights Antoinette Nwandu and Lynn Nottage, this important moment during the shutdown was well represented. However, except for one poster seen quickly, there was no mention or talk about the attacks on Asian Americans, mostly elderly, stoked by a President, who called Covid, the Kung-flu. A missed opportunity in my opinion. 

Broadway Rising (c) Vertical

The documentary does a good job following each of its subjects, especially with the death of two: Cordero and McNally. The biggest absence was any mention of Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s “Stars in the House” YouTube channel, which certainly was my lifeline during most of 2020. What started as a place for Broadway performers to gather to raise money for The Actors Fund (now Entertainment Community Fund), which helps out-of-work theater folks, soon became a place to see actual plays readings when people needed theater the most. There was a quick glimpse of actor Danny Burstein from “Moulin Rouge,” who I thought would get more screen time. Burstein’s well publicized tragedy included being hospitalized with Covid while trying to take care of his wife, the wonderful soprano Rebecca Luker, who had ALS, who would die in December of 2020. Thankfully, the rest of the subjects had happier stories as Perry, the dancer, created his own floral business with fellow dancer Robert Fairchild, and the Wicked actresses began teaching acting to kids via Zoom. 

Many people re-evaluated what was important in their lives, which is what I did right around the time Broadway theaters were finally contemplating a reopening in the summer of 2021. I was buoyed by a prize I won earlier in the year from the LA Press Club as a music critic for reviews I wrote for Film Score Monthly. I decided that I would give my review website at least a year to build itself into something different. I wrote as if I would write to any of my friends who asked, “Have you heard of play X? What did you think of it?” I would try to only review things I could give some insight on or smaller shows or movies that needed publicity. 

One of the first shows I reviewed was the first show to open after the 18-month closure, Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” which “Broadway Rising” also covers. Rice also chronicles people slowly coming back to work as well as the long-delayed opening of “Six.” I loved seeing the resilience of the Broadway community as they gingerly tried to get back to business as usual – it wasn’t guaranteed that theater as we know it would ever return. In fact, even in November of 2022, I had at least three off-Broadway shows I was scheduled to see cancel the day before or even the day of because of a Covid case in the production team. This is a fact of life now. 

Broadway Rising (c) Vertical

“Broadway Rising” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and just recently had a commercial showing as part of Fathom Events. It is now available for streaming. Yes, one might think “I just lived through this, isn’t it too soon?” Maybe it is, but it’s a wonderful reference for people to go to in the future. 

In the end, it does look like Broadway may have weathered the Covid shutdown (many nonprofit theaters around the country have not been so lucky). The movie industry went through its own struggle as well, relying on streaming services when movie theaters were closed. Unfortunately, many moviegoers are slow to come back to the cinema for films that aren’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve been conditioned to expect most film to show up on streaming before long. So, I will do my best to let you know which shows and films you should definitely check out or avoid, my friends, to the best of my ability. It’s a privilege.

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