It begins and ends with Rick McKay’s lament at arriving in New York from Indiana in 1981, too late to witness Broadway’s heyday.
But he quickly (and wisely) shifts the attention away from himself and toward the more than 100 theatre practitioners he interviewed over the six years he spent shooting, writing, producing and editing the film.
A few of the stories may already be familiar to theatre lovers, and the fulminating against the chandeliers and helicopters of the Andrew Lloyd Webber era is a bit predictable. (A more touching look at the changing times comes when Jerry Orbach describes seeing a despondent Richard Rodgers the day after Hair opened.) But "Broadway: The Golden Age" is chock full of juicy, touching and hilarious tales from Hal Prince, Uta Hagen, Al Hirschfeld, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Chita Rivera, Carol Burnett, Jerry Herman and many, many, many others, plus some extremely rare footage of the old pros at work.
It’s got a handful of delightful understudy-to-leading-lady tales, including Shirley MacLaine’s ascent to Hollywood via Carol Haney’s broken ankle in The Pajama Game. It’s got rare home movies of Merman in Gypsy and Comden & Green in On the Town. It’s got a series of touching stories of when the theatre bug bit various people: Hal Linden was hit by a bead of James Earl Jones’ sweat during The Great White Hope, and Sondheim joined Oscar Hammerstein in New Haven to see the very first preview of Carousel.
And perhaps most surprisingly, it’s got a number of legends naming two all-but-forgotten theatre actresses, Laurette Taylor and Kim Stanley, as the most influential performers they’d ever seen. McKay was especially proud of unearthing what he believes to be the only known sound film of Taylor, a 1938 screen test she did for David O. Selznick. McKay suggests that Hagen, whose book "Respect for Acting" is practically required reading for acting students, was influenced heavily by Taylor. "In other words, virtually every actor today has been influenced by Laurette Taylor without even knowing it." Despite working on numerous arts-related documentaries for PBS and A&E, McKay found himself in uncharted territory with "Broadway: The Golden Age." "I tried to take what I learned from these people about how to make a Broadway show and apply it to making a movie," he says. The most useful concept was that of taking a show "out of town"; thanks to the wonders of digital filmmaking, McKay could show "Broadway" at a film festival and tweak it based on the response he received. In fact, he says, he essentially took 13 different films to 13 different film festivals.
Given the nature of the project and the advanced age of many of his subjects, shooting often became a race against time. Stanley, Jason Robards and Anthony Quinn were among those who passed away before McKay could film them, and several people he did interview—Hagen, Adolph Green, Hirschfeld, Hume Cronyn—have since died. "What this did was lend a sense of urgency to what I was doing," says McKay, who became determined to get as much twentieth-century theatre history on tape as possible. (His first cut of "Broadway: The Golden Age" was about 12 hours long. It has since been cut down to just under two hours.)
A perfect example of this is Ben Gazzara, who created the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof only to see Paul Newman nab the role for the film version. "The fact that he didn’t do it for a few weeks on an L.A. sound stage is not justification for letting the world forget him," says McKay, who has included some rare footage of Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes in the stage production.
Along the way, McKay interviewed plenty of younger performers, including Audra McDonald, George C. Wolfe and Cherry Jones. Of that crowd, only Alec Baldwin made the final cut. But all of their stories will be heard on "Broadway: The Next Generation," a shorter piece that he plans to include on the DVD. "In a lot of ways," McKay says of the younger breed, "their story is even more heroic because Broadway was no longer the cool, hip thing to do."
Regardless of whether it was cool or hip at the time, "Broadway: The Golden Age" offers a hugely valuable time capsule of an irretrievable era. By the end, you can understand the pride that Hirschfeld displays in the film when he says, "Everybody outside of the theatre is a civilian."
I usually try to temper my opinions with some actual news, but I fear this will be close to an unalloyed rant. Can somebody please explain to me why Chris Columbus makes any sense as the writer and director of the "Rent" movie? Hollywood executives could give five good reasons—as in the five Columbus movies among the 100 highest-grossing films of all time (the first two "Harry Potter" movies, the first two "Home Alone" movies and "Mrs. Doubtfire"). And like Joel Schumacher, he gets movies made on or under budget and has a knack for discovering young actors.
But what on earth has convinced Warner Bros. that the man responsible for "Nine Months" and "Stepmom" is the guy to bring Jonathan Larson’s sprawling, messy, grungy story of drag queens and AIDS and lesbians to the big screen? What kind of world is it where "Bye Bye Birdie," a show that turns its nose up at rock far more than it endorses it, is handed to a 23-year-old director while the most legitimate Broadway rock musical since Hair goes to the guy who directed "Bicentennial Man"? I truly don’t understand. Maybe Anthony Rapp, who got his break in Columbus’ "Adventures in Babysitting" back in 1987, can sit his old collaborator down and set him straight about "Rent." But I really, really doubt it.
Why didn’t Warner Bros., which has acquired the rights from Miramax, get Scorsese or Spike or Mendes or Rob Marshall or Matthew Warchus or just about anyone else if they wanted a solid name attached? I’ve grumbled plenty about Schumacher directing "Phantom of the Opera," but at least that’s the kind of sumptuous show that benefits from a Parsons School of Design graduate behind the camera. (And hey, he directed "The Lost Boys.") The idea of a film executive remembering Macaulay Culkin splash aftershave onto his face and thinking, "That’s the director to tackle ‘Rent’" is just too depressing.
Two June releases—"De-Lovely" and "Frankie and Johnny Are Married"—should get theatre buffs pretty excited, but I’ll deal with those next month. In the meantime, the big-ticket summer movies have some familiar faces in them. Look for a batch of Brits in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (June 4), including Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw and Michael Gambon. (For what it’s worth, this is the first "Harry Potter" movie not directed by Chris Columbus.) Judi Dench couldn’t join that gang, as she was apparently too busy kicking ass with Vin Diesel in "The Chronicles of Riddick." It opens June 11, the same day as Paul Rudnick’s latest script, "The Stepford Wives." This one features two Leo Blooms—Matthew Broderick and Roger Bart—plus Kate Shindle, Christopher Evan Welch and a few other stage regulars. And two of the "Phantom of the Opera" leads can be seen this month: Emmy Rossum’s in the megabudget thriller "The Day After Tomorrow" (May 28), while Gerard Butler is in the much smaller-scale "Dear Frankie" (June 18).
Your Thoughts: Time to act like a Broadway legend. If you could jump into a time machine and see any legendary Broadway performer in any legendary production, which would it be? Somebody in "Broadway: The Golden Age" or somebody further back? And is it just me, or is Chris Columbus a really bad choice for "Rent"?
Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at email@example.com.