- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Growing up in Beech Grove, Ind., filmmaker Rick McKay ingested a steady diet of cast albums and backstage musicals and dramas, such as “All About Eve,” “Bandwagon,” and “Royal Wedding.” His notion of New York was a bustling, theater-mad place, where “South Pacific” played on one corner, and across the street was “Death of a Salesmen,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Carnival.”

In 1981, Mr. McKay moved to Manhattan, half expecting to see Oscar Levant holding court at Sardi’s, Carol Lawrence and Lainie Kazan rhumba-ing up a storm at the Copacabana and every single marquee on Broadway lit up with shows from Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter.

Instead, he found “Cats,” rock musicals and wan British imports. Times Square was ablaze in porno theaters, and such nightclubs as the Copacabana and the Latin Quarter had long been shuttered.

Mr. McKay wondered if the golden age of Broadway — the 1930s through the ‘60s — had ever really existed, or whether it was, instead, some clever ruse by a writer at the New Yorker to lure impressionable young theater buffs to the Big Apple.

He also fantasized sitting down with stage legends and asking them what it had really been like. The result of his fantasy is the old-timey but entertaining film, “Broadway: The Golden Age.”

With a minuscule budget, no crew, and a digital camera, Mr. McKay hunted down and interviewed more than 100 former Broadway stars, from Barbara Cook, Ben Gazzara, and Elaine Stritch to Robert Goulet, Carol Burnett, Gwen Verdon and Uta Hagen.

While the abundant archival footage fascinates — John Raitt belting out the “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” with trembly emotion will bring tears to your eyes — the documentary’s most beguiling aspect is the interviews.

Carol Burnett tells of coming cross-country from California as a star-struck teenager, knowing nothing about New York except the Algonquin Hotel’s famed Round Table. She checked in there with her cardboard suitcase for $9 a night (a princely sum in those days), called her mother and grandmother collect, sat on the bed and cried. Miss Burnett was rescued the next day by a fellow thespian, who directed her to the boarding house that inspired the movie “Stage Door.” There, she slept on a cot in a room with four other girls, and they all chipped in $5 to buy a black dress they wore for auditions.

Shirley MacLaine recounts being so poor as a Broadway dancer she subsisted on graham crackers and peanut butter and “free” lemonade (lemon slices, sugar, and water) from the automat. This was before her star-making turn in “Pajama Game” substituting for the injured Carol Haney.

Perhaps the most moving part of “Broadway: The Golden Age” is where Mr. McKay asks the actors which performance had the most influence on them, and everyone from Charles Durning and Martin Landau to Patricia Neal and Hal Prince answers, Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.” We are left only with stills — and Miss Taylor’s marvelously natural MGM screen test — as a testament to the largely forgotten actress’s hypnotic hold over an audience. The other actress cited by many of the stars as a constant revelation was Kim Stanley, of “Bus Stop” and “Trip to Bountiful” fame, another actress who has faded into relative obscurity.

The sheer abundance of theater in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and the excitement it generated — boggles the mind. People thought nothing of going to the theater every night, when you could purchase a ticket for a few bucks. Still, Mr. McKay’s movie often succumbs to mere nostalgia. He contends, for example, that nothing great happened in theater after the 1960s. Come on — nothing? What about “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Chorus Line,” “Angels in America,” “Arcadia,” “Shadowlands,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “The Piano Lesson” to name a few? Certainly, the ‘80s and early ‘90s were rough times for the Great White Way, but it is fusty and absurd to contend that theater effectively died after the premiere of “Hello Dolly” in 1964.

Still, “Broadway: The Golden Age” produces wave after wave of sentimental charm. You cannot help but be sweetly dazzled by Ben Gazzara recounting the opening-night jitters of “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Tennessee Williams in the audience, photos of a ridiculously young Marlon Brando in a production of “I Remember Mama,” or Angela Lansbury describing her all-out catfight to win the lead in “Mame.”

This documentary delivers clear up to the cheap seats.


TITLE: “Broadway: The Golden Age”

RATING: Unrated

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rick McKay.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes


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