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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

On Broadway

by director Oren Jacoby

Like many filmmakers of my generation, I spent way too many hours as a kid in a dark theater watching movies. In my mid-teens, I also started going to plays and soon came under the spell of the playwrights, directors, and especially the actors I saw on Broadway.

Recently, I was shocked to discover that around this time, just as I was beginning to explore it, Broadway almost disappeared. I was there but didn’t understand what I had witnessed. When I finally found out years later, I wanted to tell this story, how close the world came to losing New York’s legendary theater district.

Growing up in NYC in the ‘70s, there were plenty of things I did notice that should have clued me in about what was happening. I saw shows that I could tell were out of touch with the times. As The Beatles and Motown rocked the world, it was obvious “our” music would end the sway Broadway musicals held over the world’s popular culture. I remember how scary it was then to walk through the theater district. It was only a block from the subway on 7th Ave. to the Port Authority bus station, but you couldn’t go there without being propositioned for drugs or sex. It got so dangerous I learned to hide my bus fare in my shoe. What I didn’t realize, was what the crime-ridden neighborhood was doing to Broadway.

Just a few years later—in my twenties—I saw Broadway begin to reinvent itself. I was inspired, seeing how plays by Tom Stoppard, David Rabe, and Athol Fugard, could address issues of the here and now. Torn between my passion for film and theater, I somehow landed as a directing student at the drama school affiliated with Yale Repertory Theatre. I was an assistant director for Fugard and sat wide-eyed in a rehearsal room watching August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, and some of the greatest actors in the country work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences.

What a thrill, years later, to interview August for On Broadway and to meet and film some of the great actors, directors and playwrights who had inspired me to become a director. People like Ian McKellen, Christine Baranski, John Lithgow, George Wolfe, Helen Mirren, and Tommy Tune.

By 2019, when we filmed On Broadway, Times Square had become a vital hub for New York City. Broadway creates thousands of jobs and draws millions of people, proving the Arts can be an economic engine for a society. They also show us who we really are. Broadway has made a commitment to producing plays that truly reflect America.

When we finished On Broadway, I never suspected that, overnight, a pandemic would shut everything down and the danger of losing Broadway forever would loom again. I’ll be watching in the months ahead as Broadway reinvents itself once more, trying to come back better than ever.

Posted August 16, 2021

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