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Broadway glows in lights of memory

July 02, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

By the time Rick McKay made it to New York in the '80s with dreams of becoming a singer, he discovered that the Broadway he had learned about in movies and TV while growing up in Indiana no longer existed. Imports, shows with prerecorded music and Hollywood-style special effects had displaced the classic stage musical and much of serious theater as well. McKay, who eventually found a career writing and producing for cable television, at last decided to discover from its survivors what the Golden Age of Broadway was like.

After five years of work, McKay completed "Broadway: The Golden Age," for which he interviewed more than 100 people, about a dozen of whom have since died. Interwoven with his illustrious talking heads is some remarkable archival footage that captures what the excitement was all about.

In what must have been a daunting challenge, given the richness of the material, McKay managed to cull from more than 250 hours of footage an admirably comprehensive and revealing documentary running a taut 110 minutes. Those of us lucky enough to have seen some of the great stars and shows of the '50s or earlier will find the film especially gratifying. For younger audiences, "Broadway: The Golden Age" will provide a pretty good idea of what they missed.

With Alec Baldwin representing the current generation and Kitty Carlisle Hart and Fay Wray representing the '30s, McKay has gathered a wide swath of Broadway stars, including Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Elaine Stritch, Ann Miller, Gwen Verdon, Jerry Orbach, John Raitt, Robert Goulet and many more from musicals. Dramatic actors include Uta Hagen, Marian Seldes, Julie Harris, June Havoc, Eva Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Martin Landau, Gena Rowlands, Maureen Stapleton, Kim Hunter, Farley Granger and Hume Cronyn. There are also trenchant comments from such behind-the-scenes luminaries as Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerry Herman. Arthur Miller is omitted, but few if any other giants of the theater are missing.

The stars tell McKay about seeing their first play, their arrival in New York, the camaraderie in the struggle for survival, the ordeal of tryouts, life on the road and the thrill of experiencing the opening night and triumphant run of a hit play. "I have never done anything before or since that came close to 'Mame,' " says Angela Lansbury. Gazzara recalls what it was like to open in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and wait anxiously for the first reviews.

What must be the most legendary break in show business occurred when chorus girl Shirley MacLaine went on for Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" and legendary film producer Hal Wallis was in the audience and immediately offered her a Hollywood contract. But MacLaine here adds a surprising detail: She had been carrying in her pocket her notice to leave the show for a chance to understudy Verdon in "Can-Can."

McKay singles out what most critics and veteran theatergoers would agree are the greatest stage actors at mid-20th century. Many of his interviewees concur that the most influential performance of their lifetimes was that of Laurette Taylor as the faded Southern belle in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," for whom the play represented an unexpected return after years of alcoholism-induced obscurity. Actresses from Rowlands to Hagen marvel at Taylor's naturalness, which is preserved only in a few silents and in a 1938 screen test for David O. Selznick, which didn't land her the role but is the only record of Taylor acting in a sound film.

Marlon Brando is also singled out; Hunter speaks of the "absolute truth" of his performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on stage and later on the screen. Also noted: Kim Stanley, glimpsed in a film recording of "Bus Stop." Frank Langella recalls key moments in just about every play in which Stanley appeared, and those lucky enough to have seen her on stage understand why he has never forgotten this actress of such formidable authority and emotional resource.

Channing kicks off "Broadway: The Golden Age" by stressing the uniquely fulfilling experience of giving a live performance, a sentiment that is echoed throughout the documentary. The poignant downside of this great truth is that records of the classic stage musicals and dramas reside mainly in aging human memories. That McKay has managed to gather tantalizing bits and pieces of these milestones makes "Broadway: The Golden Age," which is warily optimistic about the future of the popular theater, all the more moving and invaluable.


'Broadway: The Golden Age'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Suitable family fare

A Dada Films release of a Second Act Productions presentation. Writer-producer-director-cinematographer Rick McKay. Executive producer Georgia Frontiere. Producers Albert M. Tapper, Jamie deRoy, Anne L. Bernstein. Special archival consultant Jane Klain. Archivist Richard Weigle. Archival print research Morgan Sills. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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