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 Broadway: The Golden Age

I grew up in a small town in Indiana—in love with movies and with Broadway. It was only a matter of time till they came together for me. When I started shooting Broadway: The Golden Age, my time-traveling, cinematic search for a lost era of live theatre, I had no backer or budget. Little did I realize that I would end up shooting over one hundred and thirty legendary stars in four countries over five years—all on my own, with no crew. I read a Russian proverb early in the process that had said, “The work will teach you.” I’ll say.

I started by sending out letters to about ten legends of the theatre. Not many responded, but Gwen Verdon did. I knew that she had been the force behind legendary choreographer/director Bob Fosse, as well as being a four-time Tony Award-winner herself.

Gwen showed up for her interview—tall, elegant, fit and charming. She was seventy-five or so at the time and we began an easy rapport as I finished setting up the lights. I asked her why she had not done more films. “I hated how I looked on film. The first day of shooting Damn Yankees, my husband Bob Fosse showed the co-director a moment that was a good place for a close-up and he said, ‘There will be no close-ups for Miss Verdon in this picture. She is too unattractive.’ Well, I never forgot it. I thought, ‘I don’t need this. I have Broadway.’ I never went back to film till I was playing everyone’s grandmother. There was a time during the ’50s and ’60s that I couldn’t walk down a NYC street without being mobbed, but now if anyone knows me at all, it’s as the old lady in the Cocoon movies.”

That turned out to be Gwen’s last interview. She died soon after, peacefully, in her sleep. But, as my film got bigger and bigger and I shot more interviews, I found that there were many others who seemed to have signed what was almost a secret contract. It was as if they had silently agreed to forgo immortality on celluloid in return for the chance to collaborate with the writer and director to really create the roles—on stage, and before anyone in movies—and to do it eight times a week, without a microphone or an editor to choose the best take.

As incredible as these legends were in our interviews, I knew I had to deliver the goods with the actual performances—which didn’t exist. I began to feel like Bogart in a Raymond Chandler film noir as I started my search. It wasn’t easy since the magic of theatre is ephemeral by nature—living on only in the memories of those who were there. But, little by little I made progress. The incredible archivist Jane Klain turned out to be my Rosetta stone. With her help I uncovered footage of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse creating Damn Yankees on stage; Robert Goulet re-enacting his Camelot audition over forty years ago; Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch in Bus Stop—with a live audience, on stage in a Broadway theatre—ditto Ben Gazzara creating the role of “Brick” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—footage that he said “could not possibly exist,” not to mention Angela Lansbury’s Mame in home movies. My film now opens with footage of Carol Channing, not Barbra Streisand, singing “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! and we hear young Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy (instead of the film’s Vivien Leigh) in the original stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I have watched young audiences that have never seen live theatre gasp when they experience the legendary star of The Glass Menagerie, Laurette Taylor’s only sound film footage in a long lost screen test that has not been seen since David O. Selznick decided not to hire her almost seventy years ago. And there is something amazingly thrilling about sitting in a movie theatre—not a Broadway theatre—and hearing an entire audience erupt in applause and cheers when John Raitt (not Hollywood’s Gordon MacRae) hits the high B flat in “Soliloquy” from Carousel sixty years ago. Live.

Most of these legends never were allowed to reprise the roles they created in the screen versions. But could they have held their own if Hollywood had let them? Look at Kim Stanley (who made a handful of films under duress) in The Goddess, Séance on a Wet Afternoon or as Jessica Lange’s mother in Frances; Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate or All Fall Down; John Raitt in Pajama Game; or Ben Gazarra in any of John Cassavettes’s films.

Clearly they had the chops—and the charisma. But, as Uta Hagen, who created the roles in The Country Girl and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor went on to win Oscars for, said it pretty well. “I wasn’t tempted to sell out to the devil. Actors back then were dreaming that Hollywood might give them hundreds of thousands of dollars so that they could do the plays they wanted later, but it never works that way. They either use up the money very quickly or they begin to think it is important that they have a Porsche instead of a VW, or that their pool is the biggest on the block. But, they never really come back.”

We might never know what we may have missed if these actors had “gone Hollywood,” but for the first time in history we can see these stage legends of the golden age on the silver screen. These stage stars may not have had the chance to have their greatest moments immortalized on celluloid, but I like to think that by going back in time and playing detective, we have given future generations a chance to be inspired by legends that they might never have known existed.

—New York City

 

Writer/director Rick McKay shines a bright light on a bygone era of American theatre, filming over one hundred legendary Broadway performers. Using interviews, home movies and found footage, he recreates an era that, if left undocumented, would be lost forever. "The largest cast of stars ever assembled for one film" includes Angela Lansbury, Jeremy Irons, Shirley MacLaine, Stephen Sondheim, Tovah Feldshuh, Carol Burnett, Uta Hagen, John Raitt, Eva Marie Saint, Frank Langella, Carol Channing, Elaine Stritch, Fay Wray, Ben Gazzara, Alec Baldwin, Kaye Ballard, Al Hirschfeld, Ann Miller, Tommy Tune and many more.