Documentarian Rick McKay embarks, likeably, on a fool's errand in his film Broadway: The Golden Age—By the Legends Who Were There. To attempt to encapsulate the best years of Broadway into a 111-minute film is to doom oneself to failure, but McKay uses his second subtitle as his guiding principle in answering at least one of his two questions: "Had there really been a Golden Age? And what had happened to it?". Five years and four continents after embarking on his quest, McKay offers up eighty-some interviews with some of Broadway's greatest talents (and a few fervent observers). For theatre buffs, it is to drool.
McKay's interviewees include Carol Channing (who opens the film, in archival footage, singing "Before the Parade Passes By"), Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury, Maureen Stapleton, Martin Landau, Lainie Kazan, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Goulet, Jerry Orbach, Jerry Herman, Fred Ebb, Carol Burnett, and Elaine Stritch. Certainly, these interviews are of historical value, underscored by the fact that several of McKay's subjects have died since he recorded them. McKay also rounds up a few rare clips of original Broadway productions, including live footage of Kim Stanley in Bus Stop and an audio snippet of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, the only known performance record of 1947's premiere production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Other clips, culled from television performances, represent heights of musical theatre like John Raitt's majestic "Soliloquy" from Carousel and Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse hitting "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees out of the ballpark.
Broadway: The Golden Age suffers from breadth at the expense of depth, too many talking heads and too little performance, but it all goes to McKay's point of the vanishing memories of an ephemeral art form. Shows like West Side Story, McKay ruefully points out, were replaced by shows like Cats. McKay encourages the aging stars of Broadway past to indulge in nostalgia and snipe at modern Broadway's moneyed grandiosity and spiritual bankruptcy. Actors and directors recall sneaking into plays at intermission time, suffering (creatively and financially) for their art, and enduring invaluable out-of-town tryouts. Their faces light up when they recall their "first time" at the theatre or, for that matter, Times Square. They express palpable awe in the performances of theatrical greats like Laurette Taylor, whose talent—save for a fleeting Selznick screen test seen here—persists only in legend.
Though McKay's omissions partly owe to the few absent stars, he pretty much dismisses the post-Golden Age Broadway which gave birth to, among others, David Mamet, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep (today's Broadway, he suggests, is "some kid['s]...movie to make in twenty years"). Broadway awaits a more thorough treatment, but in the meantime Broadway: The Golden Age—By the Legends Who Were There is a gift: an inestimable document of time and place, and a gauntlet thrown down before today's theatre professionals.