Broadway: The Golden Age

Actors just love to talk about themselves: their technique, their first show, their big break, their grand vision, yadda yadda. Filmmaker Rick McKay gives many a stage legend just that opportunity in his new documentary Broadway: The Golden Age.

McKay says as a child in the ’60s, he was fascinated by splashy ads for Broadway productions, but by the time he was an adult living in New York he was disappointed in what Broadway had become. It was the ’80s and he wondered if he was simply born too late. McKay’s film sets out to determine: Was there really a golden age of Broadway?

McKay’s quest results in a touching, charming and thoroughly enjoyable memoir of Big Apple theater from the ’30s to the ’60s. Dozens of stars of yesteryear are interviewed. Some are instantly recognizable, such as Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett and Robert Goulet — as well as many lesser-known players. Younger audience members will recognize the majority from bit roles in film and television.

The film offers some nice retrospectives of Marlon Brando and the like, but it drags a bit in the middle (after all, there’s only so long you can listen to actors talk about themselves).

It’s fascinating to watch the juxtaposition of the actors’ wrinkled and worn faces of today with their bright, youthful countenances of years ago. McKay’s film took almost five years to make, and, during that time, many of his subjects passed on to the great marquee in the sky; among them the legendary Ann Miller, Hume Cronyn and Gwen Verdon. Watching them recall their careers is poignantly touching.

The film is a bit schmaltzy at times and really goes for the heartstrings — but, hey, so does Broadway. A delightful moment comes when Shirley MacLaine and Gretchen Wyler recall the extraordinary circumstances that led them from understudy to star.

The actors say things went downhill when microphones were introduced, orchestras were pushed aside for pre-recorded music and prices went sky high. In 1949 it was cheaper to see a show on Broadway than the first run of a film; film critic Rex Reed laments that today a night out on Broadway can cost upward of $500 — for a mediocre show. Broadway reminisces about the good ol’ days. As Bea Arthur describes her run with Angela Lansbury in Mame: “We didn’t have any Cadillacs or helicopters on stage, and we both ran away with Tonys.”

Showing at the Maple Art Theater, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-263-2111.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected].

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