(Editor's Note: This interview was printed in January 1996 Playbill)
America's premier documentarian, D.A. Pennebaker, is in his fifth decade of filming-it-like-it-is--at 70, still bright and shiny enough to warrant the nickname of Penne. His sound person (and wife of 13 years), Chris Hegedus, shares the directorial credit, and son Frazer Pennebaker executive produces whatever feature-film projects come their way.
Their most recent projects have come from Wendy Ettinger, a casting director who recast herself as a filmmaker after she and her sister, set designer Heidi Landesman, appeared in a documentary their sister Barbara made about their nanny (Martha and Ethel). Wendy boarded the Pennebaker bandwagon as producer when she suggested that they train their cameras on the '92 Presidential election.
The result was "The War Room." The film, whose title is a not-too-overstated euphemism for Clinton's campaign headquarters, covered that chaotic political spectacle right up to the White House--and a tad beyond, running into the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature of 1993. Thus, when Wendy made another suggestion, the Pennebakers were all ears.
That suggestion was something Penne had been trying to pull off for 33 years: to document the Broadway experience, to take a play from its first announcement to its first night--with stops along the way for auditions, rehearsals, tryouts, previews and the angst underlining each. Pennebaker's earlier efforts to document theatre went off in two critically acclaimed tangents: One film inspected the arduous process of recording an original cast album (the 1970 "Company" when Elaine Stritch became famously unstitched trying to get right "The Ladies Who Lunch"); the other was "Rockaby," after a play Samuel Beckett wrote for a Buffalo to-do celebrating his 75th birthday.
Of all this season's prospects, "Moon Over Buffalo"--Ken Ludwig's comedy about a wobbly old wreck of a rep company in the 1950's--loomed largest to the Peinebaker crew as the play that could support an archetypal documentary investigation. Not to apply additional pressure to the play, but it was also to serve as the vehicle that would return Carol Burnett to Broadway after 30 years--a daunting endeavor even with a knowing director like Tom Moore and all-stops-out, Tony-caliber trouping from Philip Bosco, Randy Graff and Jane Connell.
Some 60 hours of footage were expended on this process, spanning from the opening press conference to the opening at the Martin Beck Theatre. In its final feature-length form, the resultant "Moon Over Broadway" will be ready for an early fall release (perhaps a prestigious festival launching either in NY or in Toronto).
"We're going to find out a lot more about this when we start to edit our film," says Penne. "It's like a wonderful day-by-day--like Boswell and Johnson. If you really want to find out about anything on their trip to Scotland, you read it day by day because, in retrospect, you forget things. In this movie you gotta go through it as an adventure."
That's the best way to view the film, Wendy feels. "The horse race aspect of it is, I think, pretty exciting. It's not a how-to film; it's just about all those personalities--really, what Broadway's all about."
Chris couldn't agree more. Although Carol Burnett is a key focus of the film, she says, "it's really about many more people, people who are passionate about something and have a lot at stake: the producers trying to protect their financial interests; the writer trying to keep his words as he wrote them . . . "
And, in the midst of all the commotion, is a director struggling to stay true to Feydeau and find a finer form of farce than what is generally done on television. "Carol," says Penne, "came into this with this very peculiar knowledge; she knew that if you got enough people in front of her, she could make 'em laugh. She didn't have to think what she was going to say--she just knew she knew how to do that.
"Then, there was Phil for whom the written word was gospel, and if they changed it--which they did almost every day--he would have to learn a whole new arrangement of words--poor devil. But it never occurred to him to start taking liberties with them. The two of them were not really doing it the same way, but they had to come together on it. And that was interesting to watch."
Crunch-time came during out-of-town tryouts. The producers' decision to let the character come to Carol rather than the other way around came--according to Chris--"at the first Boston preview. Carol got up and was Carol and took the audience under her wing, and everybody loved her. One realized that the play may have been written for someone who was a Grand Dame of the Theatre a bit more than Carol--but what the producers had was something else, and it was dynamite."
That motion was seconded in what will probably be the most dramatically naked moment in the movie--the night of the play's first dress rehearsal in New York when, before a packed house, the scenery broke and the show came to a dead halt. It was the lighting director who thought of throwing Carol to the audience while repairs could be made, and she went cheerfully, dazzling both sides of the footlights with a heroically hilarious Q&A. Wendy calls it "a gift from the gods. No one could believe we were there. They were convinced we had rigged it because it was too perfect. It was a great moment."
"Moon Over Broadway" promises to illuminate a world often lost in dark shadows and red tape. "Wendy and Frazer and the play's production company worked very, very hard to get the unprecedented type of access that we had," says Chris. "Everyone involved--including ourselves--are people who love theatre."
Penne nods in agreement. "An English publisher asked me to write a little piece about documentaries, and I began by writing this really turgid thing. Then finally I said, 'Why can't documentary just be theatre? That's really what it wants to be--and isn't allowed to be. It's co-opted by governments and wildlife agencies--everybody except people with theatre on their mind.' Theatre--documentary as theatre--is, to me, absolutely the only reason to do it."
-- By Patrick Pacheco