By David Lefkowitz
and Rebecca Paller
18 Feb 1998
After winning acclaim on the festival circuit, Moon Over Broadway, a documentary on the Broadway opening of Ken Ludwig's farce, Moon Over Buffalo, has scheduled its commercial premiere for Feb. 18 in New York. Distributed by Artistic License Films, the documentary will then play selected engagements across the country.
The film follows Ken Ludwig's comedy Moon Over Buffalo from rehearsals to out of town previews to its 1995 opening night on Broadway. The play , about a husband and wife acting team that is serving up Private Lives and Cyrano to less than-enthusiastic audiences in Buffalo, NY, starred Burnett -- returning to the New York stage after a 30-year absence -- and Philip Bosco. The play opened on Oct. 1, 1995 to mostly mixed and negative reviews and played through June 30, 1996. (The closing credits list the growing number of cities, both international and domestic, where Moon has been licensed for production.)
Coincidentally, Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre will be mounting its own Moon Over Buffalo, Jan. 13-March 1, opening Jan. 21. Wil Love and Sherry Skinker star in that production, alongside Tess Hartman, David Beach, Paul DeBoy, Lisa Connaughton, Ginny Graham and Dan Schiff. Designing the Walnut Moon will be James Fouchard (set), David Burdick (costumes), Troy Martin-O'Shia (lighting) and Scott Smith (sound). For tickets ($8-$40) and information call (215) 574-3550, x4.
Previous screenings for the Moon documentary included the Toronto Film Festival, the Hamptons Film Festival (Sag Harbor, LI) and Utah's Sundance Institute.
Frazer Pennebaker told Playbill On-Line that a theatrical release (as opposed to direct-to-video) gives the film the feel of "a larger event. It's massively different how the audience reacts, and you're reminded how funny the film is in places."
Shot mostly in rehearsals, the film recounts the day-to-day progress of the show from read-throughs to dress rehearsals to opening night and the actual run. Among the highlights:
* Producer Rocco Landesman dressing for opening night, keeping his eye glued to a televised baseball game and waiting for the last out before descending in his tux.
* Moon co-star Kate Miller asking that her photo be taken down from the marquee because it features her in an unflattering pose. * A running joke about a joke: whether "hearing aid" rhymes closely enough with "lemonade."
* Philip Bosco and Ken Ludwig in furious disagreement over the level of "improvisation" the stars can bring to the script.
* The post-Broadway opening advertising meeting, wherein the mixed reviews pondered the night before suddenly turn into a full-page ad of raves.
* (And we can't resist) Quick glimpses of Playbill On-Line photographer Starla Smith and Playbill columnist Harry Haun in early scenes of the Moon's first press conference.
Moon actress Carol Burnett, a guest speaker at the Sundance Theatre Lab (formerly called the Playwrights' Lab), told members of the visiting American Theatre Critics Assocation July 15 that the film made a strong impression on her: "Watching it was a little painful. But you see the whole process, and it's really fascinating."
Asked if the mixed reviews Moon Over Buffalo received from New York reviewers affected the actors, Burnett replied, "It could be hurtful, but we knew the audiences were with us. And one thing I've learned in this business -- the audience is always right."
At that time, Frazer told Playbill On-Line that editing on the film was delayed because another film job came along. "We were asked to do a film on this German rock 'n' roller, Marius Westernhagen, and the pay was very good. It was very interesting, actually, since we didn't speak the language."
Once the Westernhagen flick was in the can, the four Pennebakers (actually three familial Pennebakers and partner Chris Hegedus) went back to work on Moon Over Broadway.
"We shot 350 rolls on it," notes Frazer, "whereas with Company we only used about 80 [rolls are ten minutes in length]. There were some constraints because of Actors' Equity; we could only use three minutes of actual performance footage. But we were allowed 45 minutes of rehearsal footage, and since dress rehearsal is pretty close to the real thing..."
The Pennebakers counted on their Avid editing machines to speed the creative process. "It's all digital," noted Frazer. "Not like the old Steenbeck flatbeds -- though we do still have one of them."
Among the interesting vignettes Frazer finds in the film are times when, "Ken the writer feels beleaguered because everyone's asking him to change lines all over the place and punch things up. He was moving more towards Lend Me A Tenor again when Buffalo wasn't quite that kind of play."
"We also got some amazing footage," Frazer continues, "on the night the set broke and they couldn't change the scenery. The director took Carol Burnett in hand, and for half an hour just did the Carol Burnett Show. She's born to be out there."
Pennebaker talked to Playbill during the shooting of the documentary in the winter of 1995-96. Read the interview in Feature Stories.
Moon Over Buffalo, the play, starred Burnett, Philip Bosco, Randy Graff and Dennis Ryan.
Pennebaker family films (most closely associated with filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, father of Frazer) have included Company and the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back. Their next project is Searching For Jimi Hendrix, which looks more at the rock star's contributions as a songwriter, rather than the usual performer/guitarist angle.
The hallmark of a Pennebaker-Hegedus collaboration is complete honesty, so viewers can expect to "see it all": the tense early readings; the grueling out-of-town tryout period; the sometimes testy interactions with the press as news of the show begins to seep out; a parade of never ending rehearsals and re-writes; the rigors of backstage life; the almost anticlimactic opening night; and Burnett's final performance in the play.
Pennebaker and Hegedus were nominated for an Academy Award a few years back for The War Room, a study of Clintonian politics, but they are perhaps best known to theatre lovers for Original Cast Album: Company (1970), a look at the "long day's journey into night" recording session for the original cast album of the Sondheim show. Other Pennebaker/Hegedus films include Jane (1964), which documented the Broadway debut of Jane Fonda in 1960's There Was a Little Girl, a melodrama about a young woman who is raped (in which Company's original leading man, Dean Jones, played her boyfriend); and Rockaby (1981), which followed the rehearsals and premiere of the Samuel Beckett playing starring Billie Whitelaw.
Pennebaker made his filmmaking debut with the 1953 short, "Daybreak Express," an abstract five minute piece set to music by Duke Ellington about the Third Avenue El Train. He also made two landmark films about pop music icons: Monterey Pop (about Jimi Hendrix) and Don't Look Back (about Bob Dylan). Hegedus first began working with Pennebaker in 1976 and helped to complete the film Town Bloody Hall.