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Dori Berinstein knew from Day One that a life on the stage was not her calling. Pulling strings behind the scenes, however, had instant appeal. “Not having any talent myself, I knew that’s where I needed to focus,” says the Tony Award-winning producer and fledgling director, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Theater Dork” and a pink cashmere sweater draped around her shoulders. The sweater is something Elle Woods, protagonist of the movie-turned-musical “Legally Blonde,” of which Berinstein is a co-lead producer, might wear. But the T-shirt, she admits, is all her doing.
It’s appropriate, then, that for her feature film debut “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,” which opens in New York today, Berinstein went backstage to capture the making and marketing of four Broadway musicals — “Wicked,” “Taboo,” “Caroline, or Change” and “Avenue Q” — that opened in the 2003-2004 season.
“I’ve been dreaming about making this film for years and years,” says the first-time director. Berinstein, 46, was inspired by “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway” by William Goldman, a book about the 1967-1968 Broadway lineup that she read while attending Smith College. “I just was mesmerized, it really captured all the passion and the risk and the drama — and the heartache — of the theater world,” she recalls. “I locked into the idea that one day I was going to, in essence, bring this book to life.”
Berinstein spent a year and a half documenting everything from workshops and rehearsals to Tony night, capturing indelible moments like Idina Menzel getting spray-painted green for the first time for her role as Elphaba in “Wicked” and the opening night ceremony known as the Gypsy Robe, where the cast member with the most chorus credits to his or her name is bestowed with a Technicolor patchwork coat and paraded around stage.
Adding grit and humor to the mix are the local critics, often filmed kibitzing over cocktails and toasting the coming season or, relishing, as New York Post critic Michael Riedel says at the beginning of the film, “more bombs to have something to write about.” “I really wanted them to be the Greek chorus for the film and they were game,” says Berinstein, adding cautiously, “As a Broadway producer that’s been on the other side of things, I enjoyed having editorial control in the cutting room.”
Not that she’s got much to complain about. Berinstein, who won Tonys for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Fool Moon,” has had a career that spans TV (she was executive producer on “The Isaac Mizrahi Show”), film (“Dirty Dancing,” “Unzipped”) and, most extensively, Broadway.
Currently, Berinstein is at work on two more documentaries — one about a nationwide toy invention competition for kids, the other about the cheering squad for the New Jersey Nets basketball team, which is made up entirely of senior citizens in their 60s, 70s and 80s. “They go out there to center court and the music starts to play and it’s what you’d expect, they’re swing dancing,” Berinstein explains. “Then suddenly the music changes and it becomes very serious hip-hop and they get down and the crowd goes wild. The takeaway is you can be 80 years old, who says you can’t hip-hop? You should still follow your dreams and go for really fabulous things.”