In late April, theater lovers devote most of their attention to the clutch of Broadway shows rushing to open before the eligibility cutoff for Tony nominations. But this year fans should be keeping an eye on things downtown too: New projects by or about Broadway talent aren’t onstage. They’re at a film festival — the Tribeca Film Festival (running April 18-29), where Terrence McNally, Howard Ashman, Michael Mayer and Stephen Karam are all in the mix.
Every Act of Life (pictured top)
Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross’ documentary, making its world premiere at the festival, chronicles the life of McNally, the veteran, out-and-proud playwright and four-time Tony winner behind “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Ragtime,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and more. The biopic — which counts Audra McDonald, Christine Baranski, Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston among those involved — touches on everything from McNally’s romance with Edward Albee to his alcoholism and the time Lauren Bacall chewed him out for spilling a drink on her.
Kaufman and Ross first met McNally through work on their 2015 documentary about marriage equality, “The State of Marriage,” although the playwright wasn’t much help in the filmmakers’ hunt for archival material. “It’s hard to save things in New York,” McNally joked. “We live in very small apartments!”
Ashman, the writer-lyricist (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin”) who was one of the driving forces of Disney’s resurgence in animation in the late 1980s — and later, the studio’s Broadway dominance — never lived to see how influential he would become: He died of AIDS in 1991 at age 40. Don Hahn, a documentarian who met Ashman working on the animated version of “Beauty and the Beast,” tells Ashman’s life story in his new doc, with the participation of Ashman’s writing partner Alan Menken, former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ashman’s life partner, Bill Lauch. “The biggest thing was that Howard’s story hadn’t been told,” Hahn said. “Nobody had done this, and the story was starting to evaporate.”
Jack: Part One
Tribeca has put a spotlight on interactive works and new media for several fests running, and this year, one of them — “Jack: Part One,” from Baobab Studios — aims to mash up VR and immersive theater. Creator Mathias Chelebourg’s retelling of Jack’s beanstalk adventure features a live actor playing multiple roles and interacting with a viewer/participant hooked to a VR rig. “My idea was that instead of finding algorithms and very clever technological ways to do interactivity, I thought we could just throw another human in there,” Chelebourg says of the tech. It’s easy to imagine immersive theater creators using that strategy in the future.
A few years ago, playwright Karam (“The Humans”) and director Mayer (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Spring Awakening”) collaborated on a movie version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” with a starry cast led by Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan and Elisabeth Moss. The movie, which filmed in the summer of 2015, will premiere at Tribeca ahead of a May 11 release by Sony Pictures Classics.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Director-writer Dava Whisenant’s documentary, which she co-wrote with Ozzy Inguanzo, digs deep into the phenomenon of industrial musicals: corporate-sponsored, morale-boosting musical theater performed only for the employees or shareholders of a business. Chita Rivera, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Stroman and Martin Short are among the movie’s talking heads — and the film’s Tribeca premiere will be capped off with a live musical performance inspired by the movie.