The Great White Way, The Way It Was

Anyone still foolish enough to take the temperature or check the pulse of the fabulous invalid that is Broadway is obviously too young to remember how great it used to be when it was really still alive. To see how much it’s changed (mostly for the worst) or to experience how little wit, originality, intelligence and quality remains, all you had to do was watch this year’s Tony awards. (An embarrassing three-hour ordeal few people bothered to endure, according to the dismal ratings, despite Hugh Jackman’s charm and vitality as M.C. and the desperate attempt to reach a younger audience by dragging in such distinguished theater veterans as Mary J. Blige, P. Diddy, and rapper L.L. Cool J singing a duet with a haplessly misguided Carol Channing.) Whatever happened to the Golden Age of Broadway? When did the miracles end and the ticket prices become prohibitive? Why did the inspiration and sweat and creative genius dry up and get replaced by helicopters and chandeliers and naked, cussing puppets? Does anybody care?

Rick McKay does. In the riveting, historically valuable and heart-skippingly exhilarating new documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There , he asks all the right questions and gets fantastic answers from a cast of 100 people who were actually there. When he left Beech Grove, Ind., in 1981 and became another of the army of hopefuls who once arrived daily in New York on trains, planes and Greyhound buses seeking glamour, excitement and a career in show business, he was dismayed to discover how much of the theater world he knew from the movies had been lost. Working as a singer, producer, writer and editor in the years that followed, he was like so many of us who came to New York with the same dreams-he hated watching musical legends like Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, John Raitt and Alfred Drake be replaced by cat costumes with souped-up body mikes screeching atonal horrors that would have given Rodgers and Hammerstein cardiac arrest. He lamented the absence of Helen Hayes, Kim Stanley, Marlon Brando, Tallulah Bankhead-names that once made marquees glitter. Was he too late? Was there ever such a thing as a Golden Age in the first place? With no budget, no crew, no help and no money, he was driven by a passion to find out. He wrote letters to Broadway legends. Few responded, but Gwen Verdon showed up at his tiny apartment, sat for his little hand-held camera, played with his cats and gave him her final interview before she died. For five years, he grabbed every survivor he met and asked them to talk about what happened to Broadway, editing their interviews on his Murphy bed, and ending up with more than 250 hours of priceless film which he is still splicing together like broken pieces of a prize heirloom. (If there is anyone with a brain left in television, which is extremely doubtful, there’s a fabulous TV series here somewhere in the outtakes.) Meanwhile, we have the meticulously assembled feature-length treasure now on view in selected theaters before it finds its way to DVD. See it on the big screen. It will enrich your life.

Broadway: The Golden Age says it all, but does not begin to prepare you for the pleasures that await you. I know of no true lover of the stage whose eyes fail to moisten at the memory of Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding , yet here she is, her own eyes incandescent as she describes how she was transformed by Ethel Waters. Others recall their first impressions of theater and their struggling days with a candor and humor that are disarming. As a youth, Tony Roberts remembers seeing Orson Welles shooting a bird out a tree and going home with one of the feathers. Ben Gazzara cut school for 39 days and saw every play on Broadway. Kaye Ballard took one look at the Great White Way, quit her job as a singer on tour with the Spike Jones band, and stayed in New York to pound the pavement looking for stage jobs. Elizabeth Ashley, fresh off the bus from Baton Rouge, La., remembers taking her first look at a Broadway play and saying, “I want a piece of that.” A year later, Neil Simon was writing a play for her, directed by Mike Nichols. They laugh at the ways they all kept a roof over their heads. Before she met and married an aspiring dancer named Gene Kelly, Betsy Blair shared a one-room cold-water flat (with a bathtub in the kitchen) with two roommates, one of whom was an aspiring chorus girl named June Allyson. Carol Burnett spent $9 a day in a room at the Algonquin(!!) until she discovered the Rehearsal Club, where she and three roommates chipped in $5 each for a $20 dress which they all took turns wearing to auditions, then sending to the dry cleaner’s for the next girl. Every wannabe haunted the counter at Walgreen’s in the Astor Hotel and any of a dozen cheap Automats. Shirley MacLaine used to hang out at Horn & Hardart, where she would mix lemons, sugar and hot water to make free lemonade. Elaine Stritch: “I never went through that drugstore period. I went to saloons.” There were no cell phones or Internet in those days. Casting news was passed from mouth to mouth. Al Hirschfeld says, “Everyone was a family,” and Bea Arthur says, “Since we moved to Los Angeles, we never see each other anymore. Nanette Fabray and I have been trying to have lunch together for four years.”

Things were more affordable, and you definitely got more bang for your bucks. “Theater tickets were $1.10 apiece,” says Betty Garrett, “and an ironing board was $3.95. My mother and I were constantly debating whether to see a show or iron our clothes. The plays always won, and she ironed on the floor.” They talk about understudies, first jobs, how they got discovered. Janis Paige, the original star of The Pajama Game , recreates the horror and panic onstage the night standby Shirley MacLaine went on for co-star Carol Haney with no rehearsal and Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis was in the audience. Shirley just remembers, “Suddenly I no longer had to live on graham crackers and peanut butter.” They all talk about how, in those days, actors learned their craft in summer stock, out-of-town tryouts and cross-country road tours-none of which exists anymore. Lainie Kazan describes the humiliation of being fired out of town from her starring role in Seesaw and being replaced by her best friend, Michele Lee. James Naughton: “If Hitler was alive today, the best punishment would be to send him out of town with a musical.” Even the legends mist over when talking about the legends who shaped and empowered other legends. Gena Rowlands, Uta Hagen, Kaye Ballard, Charles Durning, Patricia Neal, Harold Prince, Marian Seldes, June Havoc, Fred Ebb, Eva Marie Saint and Maureen Stapleton talk about Laurette Taylor, Kim Stanley and Marlon Brando-the three actors who influenced the largest numbers of their fellow actors to learn, polish, explore and perfect their craft. But Mr. McKay moves beyond the confinement of talking heads. He incorporates rare and heart-rending footage of the actual people-Kim Stanley in an actual “live” performance onstage in Bus Stop , Laurette Taylor’s awesome screen test for a movie role that never materialized (and the only time her genius was ever captured on film). Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon demonstrate the process by which they humanized and choreographed the show-stopping “Whatever Lola Wants” number for Damn Yankees . Kim Hunter and Karl Malden don’t just talk about how Marlon Brando turned A Streetcar Named Desire into theater history; their reminiscences, intercut with archival photographs, are accompanied by the only audio reel in existence of Brando playing Stanley opposite Jessica Tandy’s Blanche. Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence and Stephen Sondheim take you back to the opening night of West Side Story (with actual visuals). Angela Lansbury and Jerry Herman candidly reveal their secret partnership campaign to land her the starring role in Mame that changed her life. Robert Goulet takes you backstage to actual rehearsals of My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page, sharing a stage together for the first, last and only time in the Actors’ Studio production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters . Ben Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes, the original Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof . John Raitt hitting the high B-flat in the “Soliloquy” from Carousel . These high-water marks of the American theater will stun you even if you aren’t all that interested in how great Broadway once was-or should be. Soaring ticket prices, inhibitive production costs that make taking risks on serious dramatic plays impossible, rock ‘n’ roll, dopey gimmicks and special effects instead of honest emotional content, a new generation of performers who are no longer trained to project their voices beyond the second row without a head mike sticking out of the top of their heads, a dumbing-down of the arts and general-there are many reasons why the theater is no longer a privileged part of life, but rather an unchallenging luxury whose financial longevity depends on tourists looking for escapism, revivals and discounts. For an institution so vital to the social, intellectual and cultural life of America, the theater has gotten shockingly short shrift through the years. At the same time, people like Rick McKay have been nurtured and sustained by it. That’s another reason why this movie is so vital. (I am not saying that because I’m in it; my contribution is minimal.) It just happens to be one hell of an achievement. It has passion and curiosity, but it is never superficially reverent. And yet Broadway: The Golden Age skillfully re-creates a time, a place and a state of mind when life had more grace, the arts had more value and everything was more fun. Why is it important? Because you can always rerun an old movie, but the theater is “live.” There is nothing like it, and it will never happen again in the same way. Will audiences west of the Great White Way care enough to worry about what they’re missing in an era of brain-dead reality TV? At a time when everybody says “Don’t,” this is a little movie that did, with a big topic and a sound heart. The fact that it got made at all is a miracle that makes you want to go out on a limb to help it. We’re only up to June, but so far it’s the most enchanting movie I have seen this year.

A Toast to Barbara Cook

Speaking of legends that never fade, Barbara Cook offers proof of her own imperishable shelf life in Barbara Cook’s Broadway at Lincoln Center. Her hat is already overflowing with laurels, but I must add that I have never seen her so loose, funny, intimate and down-to-earth. She says she can’t sing “Glitter and Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide anymore; to hit those C’s above high C would require a month of rehearsals, and she’d have to join a gym. So she hilariously lip-synchs her original-cast Broadway recording instead, to a deserved standing ovation. Her famous voice might be more comfortable settling into the lower registers now, butÊit hasn’t lost its luster on exquisite ballads like “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Time Heals Everything”-and on the rare occasion when she goes up in her lyrics, she is so charming I wish she’d do it more often. Two dreams unfulfilled: Her name never appeared in neon lights above the marquee, and she never starred in an original Rodgers and Hammerstein show, although she played both female leads in revivals of Carousel . Her heartfelt rendition of “Mr. Snow” still reduces the audience to Jell-O. “The Gentleman Is a Dope”, introduced in Allegro by the great Lisa Kirk, and new feminist lyrics for Sheldon Harnick’s “I’ll Marry the Very Next Man” (“And if he likes me / Who cares how many times he strikes me?” is no longer P.C.), are highlights. “They tell me I was a part of the Golden Age of Broadway musicals,” she quips. “I just wish they’d told me then; I would have had more fun. I was too busy worrying about where the next paycheck was coming from.” Something, no doubt, which will never furrow the pretty brow of this Broadway legend again.