This review was corrected on July 9, 2003.
Rick McKay’s exceptional new documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age” presents a veritable avalanche of interviews with some of the biggest names in the history of the American theater, preserving for posterity their wise words and disarming anecdotes. In addition, there’s a glittering hope chest of stashed mementos — including magnificent archival footage of Broadway productions from the pre-video era. Pic (which world premiered at the Palm Beach fest this spring) should be a cinch for theatrical runs in cosmopolitan markets, followed by a “golden age” of its own on DVD and video.
While “Broadway: The Golden Age” takes obvious inspiration from such movie-industry retrospectives as “Forever Hollywood” and the “That’s Entertainment!” series, it’s grander than merely the theater-world equivalent of those films. Rather, the film is born from a deeply personal yearning on McKay’s behalf, to investigate what became of the Broadway of his youth — the one immortalized to him via the splashy, New York-set Hollywood spectacles he viewed as a childin very un-cosmopolitan Beach Grove, Ind.
By the time McKay finally made it to the Big Apple, it was the era of “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” of darkened theaters and few major new plays (especially musicals) by American writers. Was Broadway’s Golden Age merely a myth manufactured by moviemakers and unleashed on naive suburbanites? Armed with only a small digital video camera and mostly acting as his own camera crew, McKay set out to interview anyone he could find who might be able to give him a straight answer.
Lucky for McKay, lots of folks were willing to talk, and talk and talk, with the resulting film perhaps the screen’s most authoritative encapsulation of Broadway history and an intimately resonant one.
Divided into chapters with headings like “The First Time” and “Getting the Job,” pic’s first half comprises various stars’ remembrances of their own first forays on to the Great White Way. What’s special about the film is the specificity of the anecdotes, the openness with which McKay’s subjects relive their youth. In a particularly charming bit, Carol Burnett recalls how she and three roommates (also aspiring actresses) pooled their meager funds together to buy a single designer dress, which they would take turns wearing (and then dry cleaning) whenever one of them was lucky enough to land an audition.
Along the way, nearly everyone McKay gets his hands on singles out one single actress, whose performance in the original Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie” inspired them to continue pursuing their own careers even when the going was tough. That actress was Laurette Taylor, who made a few silent movies but whose only appearance on sound film is in a screen test for David Selznick (marvelously resurrected here by McKay), in which the actress (known for her extreme naturalism) comes across as so unactorly that she was never subsequently used by the producer (or any other filmmakers).
From there, McKay (with help from actress Marian Seldes) proceeds to draw a line linking Taylor to Kim Stanley and then Geraldine Page as, arguably, the three greatest ladies of the American stage. As pic progresses, it hones in on some of Broadway’s more legendary happenings, such as the premiere of “West Side Story” and the electricity of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (a rare, surviving audio recording of which is excerpted).
McKay does not present the theater as a hermetic universe. Rather, there’s a sense conveyed of theater as a vibrantly vital organ, as key to the vitality of New York City as subways and taxicabs are. And much as pic is a fond reminiscence of a bygone Broadway, it’s an equally fond reminiscence of a Manhattan of 25¢ dinners taken at Horn and Hardart automats and of long-forgotten watering holes with names like Hector’s, Downey’s and Jack Dempsey’s.
Finally, McKay focuses a worrisome though not entirely despairing eye on the Disneyfied and microphone-amplified Broadway of the modern era, where an evening of entertainment costs more than most people make in a week and name stars rarely go on the road when their shows “tour the provinces.”
Not all of the 100-plus thesps credited by McKay actually appear in the film, a testament to interviews shot but not used in the final cut. However, McKay considers the film to be a work-in-progress, having already added interviews with Gena Rowlands and Karl Malden since pic’s first screenings and still on the trail of Brando, et al.