Broadway is way overdue for a major documentary of its heyday, so we should all give a tip of the hat to writer-director-producer-cameraman Rick McKay, who is now putting the finishing touches on Broadway: The Golden Age. Produced by Jamie de Roy and co-produced by Al Tapper, the film will soon be submitted for potential screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003. "After that," says McKay, "there'll be festival showings through early fall next year -- we'll probably do Cannes and Berlin and Toronto, and we've already been invited to the biennale in Vienna. The theatrical release is scheduled for fall 2003 in New York and L.A. Then we plan to re-edit the material for 50 to 100 half-hour specials to be telecast on Bravo or A&E or one of those stations."
McKay initiated the project five years ago. "It began as a six minute piece on the mural in the Times Square Visitors Center," he explains. "I was working on that piece for [the PBS series] City Arts. After we started, they suggested that I had the makings of another, better film. I started by interviewing a few stars -- Patricia Morison, Tom Bosley, June Havoc, Barbara Cook -- and I realized that what I really wanted to make was a film about the Broadway that no longer exists. I asked these stars, 'Was it really different back then? Was it so incredible?' And all of them basically said, 'You have no idea.'"
A major impetus for the film is the fact that nothing quite like it has ever been done before. Says McKay, "I asked myself, 'Why has no one documented this?' Then I realized that one reason there are lots of documentaries about film -- That's Entertainment and so on -- is because they're relatively cheap and easy to do. After all, film documents itself. But no network or studio wanted to do a Broadway documentary because it would be so astronomically expensive and time-consuming. Sometimes, I feel that my naïveté worked to my advantage: I knew just enough to be able to make the film alone without raising any money, but I didn't know enough to know that it was impossible."
McKay is thrilled that he has been able to corral a glittering roster of Broadway legends for talking-head interviews; the short list includes Elizabeth Ashley, John Raitt, Jeremy Irons, Jane Powell, Hal Linden, Carol Burnett, Charles Nelson Reilly, Shirley MacLaine, Angela Lansbury, Robert Goulet, Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, and Celeste Holm. "I got to Julie Harris right before her stroke," say McKay, "and I interviewed Gwen Verdon right before she died." He even managed to get the notoriously interview-shy Stephen Sondheim before his camera.
Broadway: The Golden Age will also include film clips, though this has been perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project. Due to problems in obtaining clips of Broadway production numbers from The Ed Sullivan Show, McKay says, "We've been looking at every kind of obscure footage. Right now, we're looking at 44 hours of stuff that we ordered on videotape over the internet. We found some great things, like Gwen and Bob Fosse on an old Jack Paar show."
The search for such footage has certainly had its frustrations. In particular, McKay notes that theater historian Miles Krueger is sitting on a treasure trove of theater memorabilia of all types, including films and recordings, but refuses to let anyone near it. McKay cites only one example: "There was this little old guy, a librarian, who came to New York twice a year [during the golden age] and, with an 8mm camera, shot about 20 seconds of every major number in every Broadway musical he saw. He left all of the films to Miles, but Miles won't share them. I told him, 'Miles, the guy left them to you so they would be seen.' He just said, 'No, I can't because it's not really legal and I could be arrested.' I said, 'Meanwhile, the stuff is rotting in cans in your closet.'"
One bit of film that McKay did secure (not from Krueger) is truly mind-blowing. For decades, younger theater lovers have been regaled by their elders' memories of Laurette Taylor, the actress most famous for creating the role of Amanda Wingfield in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Though many who saw her consider Taylor to have been one of the greatest actresses to ever tread the boards, there is almost no audio/visual record of her art. But it turns out that she did make a Hollywood screen test for producer David O. Selznick, for an unidentified film -- and McKay has got his hands on it.
"Leave it to Jane Klain [at the Museum of Television and Radio] to find it," he glows, giving credit where it's due. "I put it in our film and I sent it to Marian Seldes, who talks about Taylor in the film. Marian called me up almost in tears. The amazing thing is that Charles Durning talked about this screen test in his interview, before we even found it. He said, 'You know, [Taylor] auditioned for a movie and they didn't use her because her performance in the test was so real, so naturalistic. They didn't think she could act.' My assistant editor looked at it and asked me, 'You're not gonna leave in that part in the middle where she forgets her lines, are you?' I said, 'She doesn't forget her lines! She's showing that the character is at a loss for words. That's acting!'"
Post-production work on Broadway: The Golden Age is proceeding apace. "We've been editing for six months, as well as doing the last interviews," McKay says. "We're just working 'round the clock for these next three months to finish it." But, even in the home stretch, McKay continues to pursue the Holy Grail of interviews. "We've got a big section on Brando," he says, "and we're still trying to get him in the film. I haven't given up hope!" For more information on the project, visit the website www.broadwaythemovie.com.