The vitality of Broadway

Oren Jacoby on the importance of theatre and On Broadway

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ian McKellen’s Broadway credits include starring opposite Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, and with Helen Mirren in Conor McPherson’s adaptation of August Strindberg's Dance Of Death
Ian McKellen’s Broadway credits include starring opposite Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, and with Helen Mirren in Conor McPherson’s adaptation of August Strindberg's Dance Of Death

Oren Jacoby’s fabulous tribute On Broadway features Helen Mirren, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Christine Baranski, Hal Prince, James Corden, Alec Baldwin, John Lithgow, Tommy Tune, David Henry Hwang, Trevor Nunn, Julie Taymor, Jack O’Brien, Viola Davis, and George C Wolfe (director of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Best Costumes Oscar win Ann Roth) sharing their thoughts on the impact of Broadway. Stephen Sondheim, James Earl Jones, Sam Shepard, Bob Fosse, David Byrne, Michael Bennett, Adam Driver, Neil Simon, Michael Mayer, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly, and Ethan Hawke, Patricia Schoenfeld’s role, and the importance of theatre came up during our conversation.

Oren Jacoby with Anne-Katrin Titze on a rebirth of Broadway: “It got shaken up and artists like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse and Sondheim and writers like August Wilson and Neil Simon and others started to make it vital again.”
Oren Jacoby with Anne-Katrin Titze on a rebirth of Broadway: “It got shaken up and artists like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse and Sondheim and writers like August Wilson and Neil Simon and others started to make it vital again.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, David Byrne's American Utopia (filmed by Spike Lee), and the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! are among the productions reopening this September. Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen on Broadway reopened on June 4, 2021 and will close on September 4. On March 12, 2020 all theatres in New York City went dark, and on March 14 the cinemas closed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Terrence McNally died from complications of COVID-19 on March 24, 2020.

From New York City, Oren Jacoby joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation On Broadway.

Anne-Katrin Titze: First question: What was the very first show that you saw on Broadway and what was the last?

Oren Jacoby: That’s a good question. I’m not sure it’s the very first, but the most memorable early show that transformed my thinking about theatre and the world was a play called The Great White Hope. It starred James Earl Jones. That’s why it was so important to me making this film that we were sure to get James Earl Jones in the film. We tried to get an interview with him, his health wasn’t well though, so we were very happy to use a piece of his incredible performance from Fences, the August Wilson play from the Mid-Eighties which I was lucky enough to watch in rehearsal because I was a drama student when he was doing it at the Repertory Theater there. That was the first memorable one.

AKT: This was the first memorable one but your first must have been before that?

OJ: Not much before The Great White Hope. I guess I remember my mother taking me to a revival of Brigadoon at City Center. I’m not sure that’s really Broadway. I may have also gone to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that Sondheim wrote the music and the lyrics for, that was another early one. I remember those being kind of fun, but they didn’t hit me that way. I was still a kid when I saw The Great White Hope, that was in the Sixties.

Helen Mirren starred as as Queen Elisabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry
Helen Mirren starred as as Queen Elisabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, directed by Stephen Daldry

AKT: Your film makes you think about your own experiences. When I saw the clips from My One and Only, I thought, oh that must have been my first! But it wasn’t, it was actually Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney in the early Eighties.

OJ: Fantastic!

AKT: It wasn’t really appropriate for a child, but I had seen Ann Miller in On the Town, so as tourists, I convinced my parents that this was what I wanted to see.

OJ: The last show I saw was American Utopia, the David Byrne performance show, sort of the prelude to the rest of Broadway coming back. We have David Byrne for the month of August doing that amazing show, which is just so buoyant and makes you bounce out of the theatre.

AKT: My last one must have been Burn This.

OJ: That’s kind of a dark show as I recall. I didn’t see the revival, I saw the original production with John Malkovich. It was searing.

AKT: Adam Driver was great in it and I usually like everything Michael Mayer does. That was my last play I saw in 2019 and the first film I saw back in a cinema recently was a press screening for Annette.

Oren Jacoby on having a clip from August Wilson’s Fences: “That’s why it was so important to me making this film that we were sure to get James Earl Jones in the film.”
Oren Jacoby on having a clip from August Wilson’s Fences: “That’s why it was so important to me making this film that we were sure to get James Earl Jones in the film.”

OJ: Also Adam Driver.

AKT: Exactly, he is the stop and the starting point. Your film On Broadway - a very audacious way to start with Rhapsody In Blue. To begin with Gershwin and the skyline, you are not the first one to do this. It does work really well, though.

OJ: It was subliminal! I only realized afterward that Woody Allen had used the skyline of Manhattan and Rhapsody In Blue. You know, I think it was Brecht who said “mediocre artists borrow but great artists steal.” If you bring your own spin to something, there’s no other piece of music to me that represents what Broadway is and what New York is the way Rhapsody In Blue does.

AKT: It does work. You have Helen Mirren at the start as well and she is summing up something very interesting about Broadway. She has two questions along the lines of: Will I conquer all of New York? Or will I even make it at all? And that’s what Broadway is, as you show in your film. On the one hand gigantic hopes, on the other, will there even be a few performances. Broadway is about the extremes, isn’t it?

OJ: Very much. It’s hit or miss, feast or famine. The thing about the business of Broadway is that it’s the riskiest thing you can do with your money probably, short of a crap game in Las Vegas. But if a show does well, it’s one of the most remunerative ways to invest your money. There’s a huge payoff and that’s true on every level. As an artist you’re at your greatest risk, you’re exposing yourself more than in almost any other venue. For audience members, you come to New York and you have one night and you’ve heard about it your whole life and it’s hit or miss. You pick a play that you love or you’ll say, what were they thinking?

Oren Jacoby on the memory triggers of showing Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma: “Yes, that’s what we tried to do and again it’s personal.”
Oren Jacoby on the memory triggers of showing Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma: “Yes, that’s what we tried to do and again it’s personal.”

With movies, there’s a certain level of satisfaction that almost any movie gives you. Whatever it is in the ads or the poster makes you say I want to see this. With theatre it’s not always true. You can go see the greatest play with the greatest actors, which I did recently on Broadway and I won’t name any names, and it was one of the worst productions of anything I’ve ever seen. It was just abominable, you’ll never know. That’s one of the great things about Broadway, it’s so unpredictable. And that’s a drama in itself.

AKT: You see the unpredictability in what catches the audience’s eye. You show that so well. It’s so interesting to see the milestones, what kind of plays changed Broadway forever.

OJ: That was the revelation to me, as someone who thinks of himself as a sophisticated theatregoer, a New Yorker, someone who has worked in the theatre off and on throughout my career, who cares passionately about it - I was oblivious to this aspect of Broadway. The very biggest hits, the shows that are the most popular, that make the most money, the ones that have transformed Broadway and brought it back from each of its crises, that they were all risky, really experimental shows.

AKT: A Chorus Line!

OJ: They weren’t formulaic at all. A Chorus Line about Broadway hoofers who were people of colour, Latino, people who were gay, who had come from different backgrounds all over America and making these “nobodies” the centre of the show. And doing it with a kind of music and dancing that hadn’t been seen on Broadway. It was an experimental risk that became the saviour, the first salvation of Broadway that we show in the film. The next was Cats! Based on a TS Eliot poem.

Oren Jacoby: “The real heroes to me in this film are the actors like Ian McKellen, like Christine Baranski, like Hugh Jackman, who make millions and millions of dollars just making movies and instead they come and work for scale in plays on Broadway.”
Oren Jacoby: “The real heroes to me in this film are the actors like Ian McKellen, like Christine Baranski, like Hugh Jackman, who make millions and millions of dollars just making movies and instead they come and work for scale in plays on Broadway.”

AKT: Someone in your film calls it “the worst idea ever.” Yes, who would have thought of T.S. Eliot poems about cats as salvation?

OJ: And not only that. Trevor Nunn took theatre ideas that had only been done by The Living Theatre and Grotowski, having actors run through the audience and engage them in the ways that hadn’t been done except in these avant-garde shows. He showed that that could work on Broadway with this crazy material. Then Rent, a story about the most down-trodden kids living in the cold-water flats in the East Village through AIDS and crime and all the economic deprivation of that time, bringing rock n’ roll to Broadway that way, which had never been done before.

AKT: August Wilson. Kushner’s Angels in America. All of those were risky.

OJ: Who would think that would be the salvation? Done by artists that were extraordinary one-of-a-kind artists. I thought Broadway survives on formulas and people who are already hit makers. It turned out completely not true.

AKT: Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim, they were innovators whose work only later on became mainstream. It wasn’t at the start.

OJ: That was another revelation. These were not big hits. Fosse didn’t make a lot of money. Sondheim has done lots and lots of shows on Broadway, he’s one of the most adored artists working through my lifetime, but none of his shows were big financial successes. A few of them later made some money as movies and they have their devoted followers, but not box office smashes. They’re not in the top 100 money-making musicals, I don’t think.

Adam Driver and Keri Russell starred on Broadway in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, directed by Michael Mayer
Adam Driver and Keri Russell starred on Broadway in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, directed by Michael Mayer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The first time ever I was in New York, walking around Times Square, I saw Bod Fosse on the street. I remember thinking, okay, this is what can happen here. He wore a red scarf and I had eye contact with Bob Fosse.

OJ: Did he try to pick you up?

AKT: No, I was too young. I hope.

OJ: That’s a great New York story.

AKT: It’s a presence. I think it is Ian McKellen who says that New York is in a way unthinkable without Broadway.

OJ: Yes.

AKT: It is this strange, sometimes gaudy, theatrical, exaggerated heart of New York. You capture that in your film.

OJ: That’s a fabulous description and I think that’s really really true. It is the heart. And for a long time when I was a kid, that heart was dying. It really was in danger and almost got cut out in the Seventies.

AKT: Some of the strongest moments in the film are when the Morosco and the Helen Hayes Theater are demolished in the early Eighties and you show the protests.

OJ: That to me was an important theme that runs through the film, is how the artists who work in the theatre - George Wolfe says “It’s a bunch of theatres.” It’s a bunch of real estate, it’s these buildings, but it’s much more than that through the investment that’s been made by the artists over the years through performing there. And you understand how much it’s the heart of our culture, not just of New York but really of American culture. We’ve lost that for a while, but through the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, it was the core of American pop culture.

The songs we sang, the stories we cared about, the great literature that meant meaning in our lives - it all came from Broadway. That was almost lost in the Sixties and Seventies, when it was sort of running on automatic pilot. Until it got shaken up and artists like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse and Sondheim and writers like August Wilson and Neil Simon and others started to make it vital again. Really only in the last few years with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the artists that made Broadway really representative of our country and showed what a diverse society we have that it’s become vital again. Once again it is the heart of Americans’ identity.

Broadway honours Sam Shepard: “Shepard was one of those visionary characters …”
Broadway honours Sam Shepard: “Shepard was one of those visionary characters …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: For many tourists also, who are right now not coming but hopefully soon will be able to again, it is the first thing they see. It is an entryway. As much as the Statue of Liberty it is Broadway that gives them a sense of America. Your film really starts in the Seventies with A Chorus Line. Was it a decision of space that you didn’t want to go back to Cole Porter or start in the Thirties, for example?

OJ: No, that is the backdrop, that is like a shared understanding you have to bring to the film. We were telling a very specific story which for me is a personal story. It’s the Broadway that I experienced. You asked me about my first show. My first shows were right at the time when this film begins. I saw a number of shows as a little child in the period when you could tell it was running on empty. Then I was aware as a teenager and in my early twenties that there was something new happening.

Recently when I was told about the possibility of this film, what I tapped into was that I’d lived through it but I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t understand how Broadway was such an ecosystem and how it had been through this very specific narrative. When I worked in the theatre my mentor used to say “the theatre has got to be now.” Whatever play you are doing, it could be Shakespeare, it could be a Greek tragedy, it’s got to talk to people right now. To me I had to tell the story that I knew personally and that I cared about. I was invested in each of the actors, each of the producers, each of the playwrights that we spoke with.

AKT: You have great interviews with people who really speak about what it means for them to be on Broadway.

OJ: It’s really a rule for me on any film I make, I really want the people telling their own story. I almost never use narrators. It’s important to me that we hear from the actual witnesses or participants, the people who are the protagonists themselves. I owe particular thanks to Pat Schoenfeld, the widow of Jerry Schoenfeld, who’s my partner in making this film, who brought me the idea, who raised most of the money. She had relationships with many of these people from her years in the theatre and they cared about her. Because they too lived through this difficult story of rebirth and they wanted people to know that.

On Broadway opens in New York on August 20
On Broadway opens in New York on August 20

AKT: Speaking of people talking about themselves, you made a documentary called Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself.

OJ: Yes, that was early in my career. It was, I guess, my first theatre film. It was a great great experience. He’s a playwright that I admired very very much and I directed some of his stuff and monologues for acting classes. The searing production of my youth, when I was still a student was the production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Every actor in my drama school went and came away transformed by these performances and by that production and that writing. During the season that we were filming went to see the revival of True West with Ethan Hawke, which was also on his part an amazing searing performance. It was great for that play to finally make it to Broadway. Which actually had also been done by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching roles.

AKT: Which I saw, yes.

OJ: So Shepard was one of those visionary characters but his world was not so much Broadway as the world of Off Broadway.

AKT: It must have been very difficult for you to make decisions about what to include in On Broadway. We see Arthur Miller just for a tiny snippet trying to save a theatre.

OJ: It was a challenge even after we picked very specifically these turning points. We made it a rule, that every play that we focused on had to be something that had transformed Broadway in some way.

AKT: You picked great clips, Elaine Stritch recording The Ladies Who Lunch is beautiful. Tommy Tune is a wonderful interview. When he talks about his mother’s first visit and it is the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver - those are fantastic moments.

OJ: Tommy’s interview was one of those very very special experiences. I was almost like levitating out of the chair. You never know what to expect. I knew he was an amazing performer, a brilliant director. His production of The Will Rogers Follies is one of the most genius, joyful Broadway experiences I have ever had. But sitting down with him, this guy walks in a room, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And then every answer honed in what the story was we were trying to tell. His honesty and frankness about what he experienced through the AIDS crisis and what Broadway and we all lived through, losing people we cared about, was very moving for me.

Oren Jacoby’s Pablo Picasso set poster for the ballet Le Train Bleu
Oren Jacoby’s Pablo Picasso set poster for the ballet Le Train Bleu

AKT: Hearing him talk was also a reconfirmation for me of my child-self experiencing My One and Only and loving him in that performance. I’m so glad you got a little clip in, together with Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma and Ian McKellen in Godot. It’s the memory triggers.

OJ: Yes, that’s what we tried to do and again it’s personal.

AKT: We are in August 2021, Broadway will reopen in September.

OJ: This is a very different film today as it opens than it was when we were making it. We were creating a celebration about Broadway when it had gone through its most successful season ever. More people saw Broadway shows than ever before in history. It was this success story of how it had come back from the brink of extinction and found its way. Today it’s completely different. What’s going to happen? Is it going to come back? How can it come back? We’ve not only been through Covid, we’ve been through Black Lives Matter, our society has been through a traumatic four years, what will Broadway have to say when it comes back?

I think the bottom line the film shows is that we need it. Not just New York City, but America and the world needs Broadway. They need a place to find these stories that speak to everybody. That find out what’s the thing that matters to people right now? That will help them cope. Somehow Broadway manages to find a way to do that, through joyful musicals and through gripping dramatic plays and amazing performances by actors. And we need to see those live. The real heroes to me in this film are the actors like Ian McKellen, like Christine Baranski, like Hugh Jackman, who make millions and millions of dollars just making movies and instead they come and work for scale in plays on Broadway.

AKT: Do you have plans to see something in the near future?

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher remembered on Broadway
Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher remembered on Broadway Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

OJ: The tickets that we had, it was supposed to open last fall, that has now been postponed till January - Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are starring in The Music Man, so we have tickets for that. But I’m sure there are other things that I want to see. Patti LuPone is starring in a re-imagined production of Company, which is the first transformative show that we feature in On Broadway. And she’ll be singing that Elaine Stritch song.

AKT: May I ask what is the Palazzo Grassi poster behind you?

OJ: It’s a stage set done by Picasso for a ballet called Le Train Bleu. That’s a huge scrim that I saw in The Palazzo Grassi in Venice when I was a student studying filmmaking in Rome and taking a vacation in Venice and saw this exhibit.

AKT: Thank you for the conversation.

OJ: Very nice to meet you. Hope to see you at the theatre sometime!

On Broadway opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on August 20.

Share this with others on...
News

A perfect window onto the world Lisa Hurwitz on The Automat, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Julie Cohen and Mel Brooks

Resilience, hope and magic Kim Maxime Baglieri on In Order To Escort Her

Jude Uncovered! An almost complete A to Z to Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn

Film preservation is a collaborative effort Inés Toharia on preservation, restoration and Film, The Living Record Of Our Memory

Out of the shadows Leroy Kincaide on sleep paralysis, his past as a wrestler, and The Last Rite

Dear Thomas takes top prize in Tallinn Good night for German film as Other Cannibals also wins

More news and features

We're currently bringing you coverage of Tallinn Black Nights, plus DOC NYC and the French Film Festival UK.



We've recently covered the London Korean Film Festival, Aberystwyth's Abertoir, New York's Newfest and Sci-Fi London, the London Film Festival, Manchester's Grimmfest, the New York Film Festival, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival and the San Sebastian Film Festival.



Read our full for more.


Visit our festivals section.

Interact

More competitions coming soon.