‘Broadway or Bust’ relies on stale reality TV tropes
TV Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 09:09
In PBS’s highly anticipated three-part miniseries, “Broadway or Bust,” 60 high school thespians from around America come together in New York City. There, they participate in a theater boot camp. Their time in New York City concludes with the National High School Musical Theater Awards, affectionately known as the Jimmy Awards.
Airing on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. from Sept. 9 through Sept. 23, “Broadway or Bust” shows the grueling set of challenges that contestants face on the show. Of the 50,000 high school actors who responded to the casting call, only the top 60 make it through to the boot camp. Once at boot camp, they are coached by Broadway professionals on all aspects of musical theater: scene acting, choreography and show tunes. Their training culminates in a performance at Broadway’s world-famous Minskoff Theater and a crowning of six finalists. The finalists sing solos to the judges in a closed room; afterward, winners are chosen.
Throughout the show, individuals are given a chance to show off their musical talents to viewers. Many are audibly and visibly nervous, which is unsurprising considering the young age of the competitors. This show shines when these superbly talented students open their mouths and let the music do the talking.
What’s too bad about this miniseries is that the competitors are already learning the lingo – read: trite platitudes – and regurgitating it like Broadway robots with the hope of winning. Competitor after competitor reiterates versions of, “All the actors here are just so fantastic,” “All I want to do is be on Broadway” and “I’m so blessed to be here.” The competitors are indeed blessed, but the responses are tired and canned.
Most of these young thespians are simply hamming up the most screen time they will ever receive – a consequence of “American Idol” culture. These young adults won’t rest until they are the best. That is their modus operandi, and it is painfully evident.
Each actor eyes his or her competition, figuring out ways to improve, best the others and succeed. Sadly, the end goal of this game is not artistic satisfaction but vacuous commercial victory. “Broadway or Bust” rarely delves into the contestants’ backstories, and viewers are deprived of the chance to connect deeply with them.
Of course, the show is marketing Broadway in all of its grandeur. In propagating the legend of Broadway, it reduces the contestants – who, in a better-produced show, could be full-fledged dramatic personalities – to empty and boring Broadway wannabes. A few of the show’s actors overcame adversity to participate in this competition; however, their backstories are weakly fleshed-out at best. For example, viewers see brief glimpses of a girl who was homeless and found a life in acting and performing. There is also the story of a young man who faced discrimination in high school and found relief and escape in musicals – but, disappointingly, these introspective flashbacks rarely last longer than 30 seconds.
In one instance, Michael Feinstein, a famed Broadway singer, archivist and conductor of the Pasedena Pops, explains to a young performer that he needs to honor the music the way it’s written. Doing so, he explains, will give the music the credit it’s due while making the best of the performer’s talent.
“You’re shortchanging yourself if you don’t go a step higher,” he says.
“Broadway or Bust” could have capitalized on the interactions between young and old, amateur and professional. Instead, the show sells itself short as it employs the same overdone and worn-out trope pioneered by “American Idol.”
For now, thespians hoping for a worthwhile, televised representation of the theatrical world will unfortunately need to keep looking.