Broadway: The Golden Age

on June 11, 2004 by Sheri Linden
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Rick McKay, a former actor-singer who has been producing, directing and writing for television, makes his big-screen debut with this tribute to the heyday of American theater. The film's subtitle, "By the Legends Who Were There," says it all: McKay spent five years interviewing more than a hundred actors, playwrights and producers, and there's a conversational intimacy to their testimony. As well as providing an overview of New York's creative community in the 1940s through the '60s, "Broadway: The Golden Age" includes some of the final recorded interviews with such luminaries as Uta Hagen, Hume Cronyn, Ann Miller and Gwen Verdon.

Indiana native McKay's voiceover narration--mercifully absent from most of the film--strikes a disingenuous tone of small-town awe. When he moved to New York in the early '80s, he was dismayed to find that the fully live Broadway productions he'd read about were all but extinct, with canned music, elaborate microphone systems and special effects, not to mention exorbitant ticket prices, ruling the scene. There's no analysis of these changes until the end of the film; McKay lets his subjects' reminiscences take center stage. He doesn't differentiate between musicals and straight plays, instead organizing his material into overlapping thematic sections dealing with topics like making ends meet as a young actor (Carol Burnett and her three roommates chipped in to buy a dress that they took turns using on auditions); Manhattan stomping grounds, from Walgreen's drugstore to legendary nightspot Sardi's; and understudy breakthroughs, notably Shirley MacLaine's ascension from the chorus line of "Pajama Game."

Fifty years after the fact, these anecdotes come across with powerful emotion, although many of them relay oft-documented events. The biggest revelation is the near-unanimous adulation of a Broadway star whose name has not endured: Laurette Taylor. Her legendary turn in "The Glass Menagerie" is the subject of especially indelible memories. The resourceful McKay dug up the only known sound recording of the actress, her 1938 screen test for David O. Selznick, and her naturalness is remarkable. "She changed acting," says Ben Gazzara. "We've all been striving to be her, in one way or another." Featuring Elaine Stritch, Shirley MacLaine, Ann Miller, Kim Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Tommy Tune, Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Patricia Neal and Jerry Orbach. Directed and written by Rick McKay. Produced by Rick McKay and Albert M. Tapper. A Dada Films release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 109 min

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