Clipaholics can have a feast when the want to study any decade of cinematic history. True, a great deal of material has disintegrated over the last century, but millions of reels of great stuff still survive, so you can get a real feeling of what any particular decade was like. Sadly, this isn't the case with theatrical history. I've yet to find a better source for time traveling on Broadway than Daniel Blum's “Pictorial History Of The American Theatre” : Chock-full of photographs dating back to the 1860's, the book is a treasure trove of long-forgotten stars, many of whom never made a movie. That plus original Broadway soundtrack albums plus frequent revivals of vintage favorites provide a great beginning for any theatre buff.
Still, Broadway's best year remains 1927 when 268 productions were on the Great White Way, more than any other before or since. Perhaps First-Nighters can remember the thrill of that cram-packed year, but if they're still around, they aren't in “Broadway The Golden Age,” Rick McKay's new documentary on a somewhat later time in theatrical history. With a rock-bottom budget and a camera, McKay tried to talk to every star who would consent to an interview. Despite repeated tries, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Julie Andrews, Bernadette Peters and the late Marlon Brando all said no. Brando eventually gave McKay some help in an invaluable telephone call. You can see Brando in old film clips opposite the late Kim Hunter from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and you can also hear Brando and Jessica Tandy in an audiotaped sequence from the play.
The always articulate Fray Wray, much more famous for her film work, shares some memories from her brief theatrical career. The late Ann Miller, who starred as “Mame” and was a Tony nominee for 1980's “Sugar Babies,” chats on camera and can also be seen tap dancing in home movies from “George White's Scandals Of 1939.” In 1938, David O' Selznick tried to talk stage star Maud Adams to making “Young In Heart.” He didn't succeed, but did persuade her to make a screen test. Next up for the role was Laurette Taylor, who'd recreated three of her stage successes as silent movies: “Peg O' My Heart,” “One Night In Rome” and “Happiness.” Her sound test for “Young In Heart” was outstanding: so real you could hardly believe she was acting, but another stage veteran, Minnie Dupree, was the final choice. Laurette Taylor was a remarkable actress whose performance in “The Glass Menagerie” really should have been preserved on film. Alas, time ran out for Laurette Taylor in 1946 and Gertrude Lawrence, never a good film actress, starred in the 1950 Warner Bros. movie with Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, and Arthur Kennedy.
Time, indeed, is running out for many of the participants in Rick McKay’s film. Of course, we'd like them all to live to be 107 like the legendary producer George Abbott, but they won't be singing and dancing at that age. Subversively, the film AND the stars come up with a suggestion to see the legends of THIS time: Be a Second Act-er! If you can't afford $480 for a top Broadway show, wait till half time and slip into an empty seat. Some brazen souls will head straight for the orchestra seats, although the mezzanines and balconies might be a safer bet. Sure, you'll miss half the show, but you'll get to see your very favorite and very mortal stars in action! Among the guys and dolls still around for RickMcKay's camera are Diana Rigg, Angela Lansbury, Edie Adams, Bea Arthur, Elizabeth Ashley, Alec Baldwin, Kaye Ballard, Betsy Blair, Tom Bosley, Carol Burnett, Kitty Carlisle, Carol Channing, Betty Comden, Barbara Cook, (who once said, "I wish had known I was living through a golden era in the musical theatre: I might have enjoyed it more!") Arlene Dahl, Charles Durning, Nanette Fabray, Betty Garrett, Ben Gazzara, Robert Goulet, Farley Granger, Tammy Grimes, Julie Harris, June Havoc, Mimi Hines, Celeste Holm. Sally Ann Howes, Jeremy Irons. Anne Jackson. Derek Jacobi. Lainie Kazan, Martin Landau, Frank Langella, Carol Lawrence, Michele Lee, Hal Linden, Shirley MacLaine, Karl Malden, Donna McKechnie, Liliane Monevicci, Patricia Morison, Robert Morse, James Naughton, 1947 Tony Winner Patricia Neal, Phyllis Newman, Jerry Orbach, Janis Paige, Jane Powell. John Raitt, Elliott Reid, Charles Nelson Reilly, Chita Rivera , Tony Roberts, Gene Rowlands, Eva Marie Saint, Marian Seldes, Vincent Sherman, 98, Maureen Stapleton, Elaine Stritch, Tommy Tune, Leslie Uggams, Betsy von Furstenberg, Eli Wallach and Gretchen Wyler. Sadly, Hume Cronyn, Adolph Green, Uta Hagen, Al Hirschfeld, Kim Stanley and Gwen Verdon did not live to see the release of “Broadway The Golden Age.” Even sadder, young George Gershwin, who died on July 11, 1937, receives what I consider short shrift for the 20th Century's greatest composer.
In spite of the "ain't it awful" tone of some of the participants, the good old days weren't always great and I would like to have seen stars who reflected a greater range of the 20th century, in addition to the old-timers. 111 minutes isn't long enough! Coming up, a 1998 interview with the ever young Fayard Nicholas, now ninety, who starred with his late brother Harold in “Babes In Arms” and “Ziegfeld Follies Of 1936”.
© 2004 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 7/7/2004
Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There
USA - 2003