Growing up in New England, I got my first dose of live theater watching
the CBS variety series “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday nights. My parents also
had recordings of shows like KISS ME, KATE and OKLAHOMA! It took me until
1975 to see my first live Broadway show, but I recall it vividly: the Hal
Prince-directed in-the-round revival of CANDIDE. After that I was hooked and I
would head to the local library to borrow whatever recordings they had. Once I
was earning money of my own, I began to collect original cast albums. So I can
easily understand filmmaker Rick McKay’s rabid interest in the Broadway shows
of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. By the 1980s, when McKay arrived in New York,
Broadway had begun to undergo the changes that have left it much poorer.
Production costs soared, shows became events, and the invasion of the large-scale
British musicals forever altered the face of the American theater.
So after a career of performing in nightclubs, McKay hit on the idea to try
to interview as many of the remaining stars from the 40s, 50s and 60s as he could.
The result is the terrific documentary BROADWAY, THE GOLDEN AGE BY THE
LEGENDS WHO LIVED IT. McKay had some difficulties landing some of the
interviewees which may account for some of the omissions (people like Joan Roberts
who was the original Laurie in OKLAHOMA!), but those who did agree offer a wide
range of interesting tidbits.
Theater is ephemeral; it is performed and then relegated to the memories of
those who were performing and those who were in the audience. True, now we
have records of many shows thanks to the archive at the New York Public Library
for Performing Arts, but before the 1970s, there were few recordings made.
Occasionally, a production might be recreated for television. So the rare archival
footage that McKay has uncovered (much thanks to the intrepid associate producer
Jane Klain) is worthy. There’s footage of a teenage Ann Miller tap dancing in the 1939
production GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS and the opening scenes of BUS STOP
featuring Kim Stanley, Elaine Stritch and Albert Salmi. McKay (thanks to Ms. Klain)
also located a 1938 screen test for Laurette Taylor, which is the only extant footage
of the actress speaking. Watching it is amazing and it is frustrating to hear that producer
David O. Selznick and his minions were unimpressed by Taylor, feeling as if she was
some little old lady who wandered off the streets. In fact, Taylor had acted in silents
and was an acclaimed stage star, noted for the chestnut PEG O’ MY HEART. In 1945,
she delivered one of her most memorable performances creating the role of Amanda
Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Like many in the theater
who don’t bother to learn the history, McKay did not know who Taylor was, but
many of his interview subjects related how impressed and moved they were by her
The film is a valentine to a lost era, when productions on Broadway didn’t cost
several million dollars, the cost of tickets was on par with movie admissions, and one
could live rather cheaply in New York City. While there are flaws in the piece, McKay
has managed to elicit terrific stories from the likes of Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, Carol
Channing, Gretchen Wyler, Uta Hagen, Gwen Verdon, Ann Miller, Patricia Morison,
Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Patricia Neal, Maureen Stapleton, Beatrice Arthur,
Carol Burnett and Elizabeth Ashley, among many, many others.
BROADWAY, THE GOLDEN AGE serves as a document that captures some
of the magic that has been lost as Broadway has become more corporate and less risky.
It’s a sad reminder of a time when plays and musicals flourished. McKay has reportedly
enough interviews for a sequel, featuring a current crop of stars, but when weighed against
those who went before, they simply can’t measure up.
Resource: Rdx hd