The 7 Best Documentaries About Broadway

Moon Over Broadway

When the lights go up on Times Square and Broadway comes back to life for another night, it’s nothing short of magic.

Here, under the soft glow of stage lights, audiences are transported to a different place, allowing them to explore the unknown or see their own reality in a completely different light.

But there’s also magic to be found in peeling back the curtain, rubbing away the greasepaint and uncovering what goes on behind the scenes.

Those elements that bring a show to life – the characters, the costumes, the set and its props – often offer a story just as compelling as the production itself, which is why over the years so many documentaries have gone backstage to tell the stories of the actors and understudies who give a little bit of themselves every time the curtain rises.

There’s heartbreak as much as joy, drama alongside comedy, making the films that celebrate the Great White Way as important as the productions themselves, especially because they preserve key moments in live theater in a way that’s extremely rare for the medium.

We’ve put together a list of some of the best must-see documentaries that showcase and celebrate the uniqueness that is Broadway.

“Company: Original Cast Album” 1970. It may have been decades since cameras went behind the scenes to explore Stephen Sondheim’s smash, but this documentary remains an enduring look at not only the details that go into bringing a show to life, but also in preserving it. It focused on the recording session for the show’s soundtrack, taped just a few days after the show’s stellar Broadway opening. Not only does it offer a glimpse of Sondheim before he became one of the more enduring composers in musical theater, it also shows how painstaking the process of recording can be, especially for perfectionists like Sondheim and his temperamental leading lady, Elaine Stritch.

“Moon Over Broadway” 1998. Carol Burnett starred in this look at the making of “Moon Over Buffalo,” a physical comedy by contemporary playwright Ken Ludwig (the farce “Lend Me a Tenor” and the Tony Award-winning “Crazy for You” are two of his best-known works). The show – which heralded Burnett’s first return to Broadway since 1964’s “Fade Out, Fade In” – focuses on the grueling, often manic, rehearsal schedule leading up to opening night. Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus had earlier explored the mad frenzy of our nation’s political campaigns in 1993’s “The War Room,” and the juxtaposition of theater and politics is as interesting and telling as the similarities between war and football.

“Broadway: The Golden Age” 2003. Before the stories slipped away, top names including Carol Channing, Bea Arthur, Carol Burnett, Fred Ebb, Karl Malden, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera, Hume Cronyn, Robert Goulet and Martin Landau, among many, many others, were interviewed for this top-notch documentary look at Broadway during the 1940s and ‘50s. It weaves together personal memories with clips of never-before-seen footage and photographs, making it a vibrant and important catalogue of theater history.

“Every Little Step” 2008. This Tony Award-winning documentary reveals how grueling life is for the dancers who sacrifice their time and their bodies in hopes of landing a spot in a hit show. It focuses on the Broadway revival of Marvin Hamlisch’s “A Chorus Line,” a fictionalized account of the same behind the scenes subject matter. Given the place “A Chorus Lines” holds as one of the longest-running shows on Broadway – it ran for 6,130 performances – a documentary exploring the show’s stories about dancers giving their all for a dream should earn as enduring a place in history as the musical itself.

“In The Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” 2009. This show was born after composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda saw “Rent,” and realized the power of a theater that told contemporary stories. He spent the next eight years telling his own tale through “In the Heights.” Through the documentary, which includes workshops as well as the show’s off-Broadway beginnings, the stories of the show’s cast also come to life, as each shares the personal struggles and triumphs that come while seeking a shot at stardom.

“ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway” 2010. This look at four Broadway productions – “Wicked,” “Taboo,” “Caroline, or Change” and “Avenue Q” – includes rehearsals, opening nights and the reviews that follow, condenses 600 hours of film shot by Don Berinstein into less than two hours, so it easily showcases the electric energy that goes into guiding a show from auditions to the tension-filled moment when the curtain goes up on opening night.

“Broadway: The American Musical” 2012. This six-part documentary series by Michael Kantor chronicles the history of the American musical alongside life in America as it was at the same time, showcasing how art in all its magnificent forms vividly, vibrantly tells our story and cements our history as much as a photograph or diary entry. It kicks off with the Ziegfeld Follies and takes a stroll through the Jazz Age, when Walter Winchell dubbed Broadway “the Big Apple,” that delicious forbidden fruit of which so many people long to take a bite. More so than other documentaries,” “Broadway” reminds us that the theater has long challenged its audience by exploring racial tensions, immigration, poverty and other dark issues alongside the smart sophistication of comic lyricist Cole Porter.

And while Broadway is the piece de resistance, theater lovers should also add the mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman” to their collections. Christopher Guest’s comic take on a community theater company’s dream of taking their show to Broadway is packed with big names and big laughs, a perfect ending to a marathon session of Broadway behind the scenes.

Author: Brenda Neugent