What's New on the Rialto
An Update Interview with Rick McKay
By Nancy Rosati
Also see Matthew Murray's review of Broadway: The Golden Age
I first met Rick McKay in December, 2002. We sat in his studio for hours while he told me of his passion to complete a documentary about the "Golden Age of Broadway." He had started almost five years earlier without a budget or a crew, with his own video camera, to interview as many Broadway legends as he could find and ask them what that era was like. When we spoke, he was still in the process of editing the movie, and the concept of his film being seen in commercial theaters was still only a dream.
That dream has now become a reality, so I sat down with Rick again in order to hear the rest of the story.
Nancy Rosati: A lot has happened since our first interview.
Rick McKay: I first talked to you a year and a half ago. I think it was before I had ever gone to a festival, and you were one of the first people ever to see the film privately in the studio. Since then, it's won thirteen Best Film, Best Documentary, or Audience Awards. It has made the leap that one in a hundred, or one in a million films ever make. It's not only gotten distribution, but it's opening in theaters. Only a handful of documentaries ever get that.
NR: It's opening in New York, L.A., and ...
RM: ...around the country. On June 11th, it will be at the Angelika downtown in New York City, and the Sutton on 57th and Third. They're very prestigious theaters. I'll be doing Q&A's after some showings with surprise cast members.
NR: For those reading this who aren't in either New York or Los Angeles, where will they be able to see it?
RM: After Los Angeles, it should be going out to the art houses in major cities around the country. It's extremely important that we get big numbers in New York during the opening weekend, because that will determine the demand for future distribution. They can check the website (http://www.broadwaythemovie.com) for the schedule and request to be on the mailing list. They can also email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to request theaters.
It's been a battle, and I think that's why Rolling Stone's Peter Travers referred to my "unstoppable passion." When I did a screening with him last week, he chose this film as his favorite of the year in the New York Film Critic's Series. They closed the series with Peter and me. He said, "How is it going?" and I said, "Every day is a fight. Every day is a battle. Every day is a lawyer, a distributor ..."
NR: What kind of battles? Do you mind sharing them?
RM: I don't mind. I want people to know that you have to be desperately passionate because it is a non-stop battle. A few years ago, I did a piece for PBS about Elaine Stritch at Liberty. If you saw the Pennebaker documentary on HBO last week, they used a good portion of the footage that I shot. She told me, "It's all a fight that never stops." At that time, I thought, "What a shame she still thinks like that."
It seemed to me that you shouldn't have to think negatively. I must say, two years later, I have beaten all the odds and I am getting this movie out to the public. I learned she was right - it's not a negative thing. If you were going into battle in a war and you decided to say, "It's not a war, it's fun," you'd be killed. It IS a war to get the things you believe in produced, instead of the mainstream junk. If you know that, you can gird your loins and go in passionately, believing what you're going to do.
NR: Is part of that is because you're not a corporation? Because you've done this alone?
RM: Sure. Second Act Productions is a little apartment. People don't realize that in order to do this, you have to write press releases, you have to make fax letterhead to make them look more important. You have to be a producer, a director, a writer, and a PR person. You have to have a vision and not stop fighting. It is a fight, but I no longer think "fight" has to be negative. There can be a good fight, a passionate fight for what you believe in. I learned that from Elaine.
I'm excited that it's going to be in theaters because it's now going to reach young people. Andrea Stevens of the New York Times said to me, "It's so important for young people to see this. The passion still burns so brightly in the eyes of these older people when they're talking about it." I was thrilled to hear that because that's my goal - for young people to see what the struggle was like, and to see that it is an honorable thing to struggle for your passion. Now some kids 20 years younger than me think it's a little bit naive to struggle. They think you should have a plan, you should be making x-amount of money, you should know you can only work between 18 and 28 because you'll be too old to be on TV, and you can't miss your TV window. That thinking can't infiltrate art, but that's what's happening now. If you think you have to make the money that Ray Romano makes, then you're not going to do great things in tiny little theaters just to be on stage working and learning your craft. You won't learn your craft on a sitcom set.
NR: You've made a lot of changes in the film since we originally spoke. For one thing, you've pulled the younger people out. Can you talk about those decisions?
RM: When you first saw it, I still had the film ending with the younger generation talking about how Broadway changed and why they stayed and worked in it. I actually did out of town previews with this. They call them film festivals, but I decided they would be our out of town previews, because the movie taught me to do that. That's when I realized they didn't work - not because they weren't good, but because it diminished people talking about a lifetime of work to have a 25 year-old come in with his opinion of the theater today.
Their story was just as valid, but it was a different story, so I moved them to Broadway: The Next Generation. In some ways, they are more heroic. They did not grow up every day with Broadway songs on the radio. They didn't have The Ed Sullivan Show or Your Hit Parade on TV. They didn't grow up when Broadway permeated the consciousness of every person in America the way it did in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. They didn't grow up cutting school every day so they could see shows. Fred Ebb said he could not walk by The Glass Menagerie with 55 cents in his pocket and not buy a ticket for the second balcony. With today's ticket prices, that would be like a young actor saying, "I can't walk by Wicked with my Gold American Express card and not go in." Now the cost to go to the theater is part of your rent, it's not just something you must do every day.
Their story was braver in a way, because it wasn't part of popular culture any more. They wanted to go against the odds. Cherry Jones told me she came to New York when Central Park was full of broken glass and hoboes. If you couldn't dance and do A Chorus Line, you couldn't work. I thought Broadway: The Next Generation would be about the people who, against the odds, came to New York in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Audra McDonald told me she came on a school trip, saw her first show, and said, "I want to do this." I asked her what show it was and she told me Starlight Express. I said, "You came anyway?" (laughs)
I applaud them. It's one thing to see Ethel Merman in Gypsy, one of the best musicals ever written, and say, "I've got to do this," but to be passionate enough to want to come after Starlight Express means your passion runs deep. Plus, now shows might run 20 years and there may be no new jobs. People will stay in the show, marry someone in the show, have children in the show, buy a house from the money in the show, and never do another one. That's not encouraging to an actor. I thought there's a heroic story in Broadway: The Next Generation that merited it having its own version.
NR: Where will people be able to see that?
RM: I think it will be on DVD instead of going out on its own. It may have TV too. Right now, I want young people to get a chance to see the legends. For the first time, chorus people aren't growing up working with big stage stars who spent their lives on stage. That's because they skipped a generation of making Broadway stars. You can't stand in the wings like Elaine Stritch did understudying Merman, or Chita Rivera's first show Call Me Madam, where she learned from Merman.
NR: There are stars today. There's Kristin Chenoweth ...
RM: (interrupting) You can't stand in the wings and learn from Kristin Chenoweth! She's a kid. She is not a teacher. She's done what - three Broadway shows? She's never carried a show. She's never had a musical written for her. It doesn't exist today.
NR: You really don't see anybody like that now?
RM: I think they exist, but where would they work? Can you think of 20 top, young Broadway performers all working in leading roles in musicals right now?
NR: You have people like Sutton Foster who may have that potential.
RM: She's done one show. They skipped a generation making stars. It's not an indictment on the talent, it's because Cameron Mackintosh told me, "I've had five of the biggest hits in history and I'm lucky. I never needed a star." As a result, they found it was better to have the show be the star because you could have that show in 30 different countries. With Hello, Dolly! and Mame, you kept a whole generation of movie and Broadway stars working after the era ended. Every bus and truck company had someone from Martha Raye to Ginger Rogers to Janis Paige ... they all kept their craft going. They stopped doing that 20-something years ago, and it's not fair for actors today to have to learn from someone who's done only two or three shows, and never carried a show alone. Chita Rivera learned her craft watching a star on stage. If they don't build stage stars, you can't pass on how to carry a show.
There's something else - you saw Kaye Ballard in the film talk about how she never missed a performance. You heard Joan Kobin, the famous singing teacher, say, "I was Kaye Ballard's understudy. Believe me, she never missed." In fact, Joan Kobin bought herself out of her contract after a year and a half because she realized that when you understudy Kaye Ballard, you never work. Can you imagine that today?
NR: The understudy for Harvey Fierstein.
RM: He's from another generation. Donna Murphy is doing a role that was written for a non-singer in very easy keys. She can't do eight shows a week. They're supposed to be athletes. They should be at the top of their form to do a Broadway show. Barbara Cook is doing 6 nights a week at Lincoln Center. Kaye Ballard just came back from 21 weeks on the road with Nunsense in 21 towns. Every day off was spent on a bus. She's 77. There were five women - Kaye, Mimi Hines, Darlene Love, Lee Merriweather, and Georgia Engel. Kaye's the oldest one in the cast and she's the only one who didn't miss a performance.
That's what I mean - it's that kind of training. I'm not saying it makes today's actors lazy, but the bar that they raised shouldn't be forgotten. John Raitt missed almost no performances in Pajama Game and Carousel. It's an olympic job singing that role, and he did it without a mic, filling up a 1500 seat theater over a 40 piece orchestra. Why would you learn to sing like that today? You can still study with Joan Kobin, who teaches full time, and learn to fill a Broadway theater with your instrument, but it's almost like someone spending his life training for an Olympic sport that was discontinued. It makes me sad.
NR: Don't you need that training in order to sing correctly with a mic and not lose your voice?
RM: You're right in theory, but people aren't trained that way. I know from being a singer for years that it's a nightmare for a singer to think of having to sing unmiked now. The whole technique is built around a mic. It's like a nightclub performer back in the 50s. They couldn't do a Broadway show. You'd have to recast every show on Broadway if they were unmiked.
NR: When you took out the current generation of actors, you kept Alec Baldwin in the film. Why was that?
RM: He's the closest thing to a charismatic Broadway star "back in the day." The other ones are immensely competent. They're really good at what they do, but if Audra McDonald gets on the stage and has a bad vocal day, I don't think her charisma carries the show. She's not a personality like that. Alec is a star. Gwen Verdon told me the definition of a star is someone, that when they're on stage, you can't look at anything else. She said that's why a director wants a star. He can place a star somewhere and do what a cameraman does in a film - direct all the attention to where they want it. The placement of a star can make the director's job so much easier, because you don't have close-ups or cutaways as on film.
NR: You've seen The Boy From Oz? Do you feel Hugh Jackman comes under that category?
RM: Unquestionably, and he's a craftsman. The other people in that show are very talented and capable, but when there's a real star on the stage, you cannot look anywhere else. He's single-handedly saving a second-rate show. In another era, there would be top composers writing and begging him to do their show the next season. Now, there are no top composers writing shows for Broadway anyway. If anything, they're writing them for repertory theater, or maybe for the Public. They're doing two years of workshops. In five or six months, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green sat down with an idea, fleshed it out, rehearsed it, took it on the road and opened. From the first idea to the opening night was six months, and Betty and Adolph were in the show too.
NR: But it's prohibitively expensive to do that today. They've got to do the workshops.
RM: Of course. It's a horrible policy, but unfortunately people are trapped by it. Also, the young writers are very tempted to write pop music. Once Broadway was popular music, so when Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote songs, everyone in the country sang them. If you wanted to write popular music, you could write for Broadway and know your songs would be on TV and radio the next week. How many people recorded "You Gotta Have Heart" or Jerry Herman's songs? It would be great if all those teams of young composers wanted to write Hugh Jackman a show, and know that their songs would be heard on TV. Even with all those pop songs that Peter Allen wrote, none of those songs are getting any more play. You haven't heard a Peter Allen song on the radio. It's hard for me to imagine how, in such a short time, Broadway no longer affects our consciousness the way it did.
I'm just glad my film is reaching people. It gave me deep pleasure today to hear Peter Travers mention "Rick McKay's unstoppable passion." I am unstoppable. I've exhausted so many people that have volunteered and helped with the film. Peter may find my unstoppable passion exciting, but I've worn out people half my age! But that passion is what got this film to the world. The fact that Paul Newman did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for two weeks on a sound stage, is not reason enough to forget Ben Gazzara. He collaborated with Tennessee Williams in rehearsals, and then could whisper on stage and be heard two balconies up. He did the impossible and created that role, but it's completely forgotten. The world should be reminded that that rotten version of Mame that circulates on late night TV is not Mame. Angela Lansbury is Mame. Just because she didn't do the movie, it shouldn't be forgotten. The average young person has no idea that the lady in Murder, She Wrote created the role of Mame.
NR: I remember my mother standing there in utter amazement when she realized that Shirley Jones was doing a sitcom singing pop songs.
RM: Exactly. When you hear Tammy Grimes in the outtakes at the end of the film singing "When I Marry Mr. Snow" - why is Shirley Partridge on Broadway playing the role Tammy created 25 years ago? Why didn't they bring Tammy Grimes back? Because Tammy turned down Bewitched. She didn't want to do Bewitched, that they created for her. The fact that she turned down that series means 40 years later, she can't work on Broadway. But the person who did a TV series gets the job she should have. Elizabeth Ashley told me, "I left Hollywood and quit making movies so I could dedicate my life to the stage. Now I'm 60 and I find out it's the people who stayed in Hollywood that get the stage roles. It's very frustrating." That's what I want the movie to turn around a little. Why do the Tony Awards use TV and film actors?
NR: I read that more people saw Van Helsing in its first weekend than saw all of the nominated musicals put together. And Van Helsing wasn't exactly a hit. How do you get people excited about theater in that climate?
RM: You get them excited because anyone can see Van Helsing, but only a few people in the world will get to sit in a theater and see something happen once that will never happen again. That's why I didn't want to do a time line history of Broadway like PBS does. I applaud them for that. They are writing the history book version. I wanted this to be very personal. I wanted people to talk about the perfume that you smell if you sit in the front row; the sweat that might hit your arm. That you see something no one will ever see again. Why it's important to get to a theater at any cost. Why you should get to New York and see The Boy From Oz with Hugh Jackman. You can rent Van Helsing later. You can buy the DVD. You can watch it on your laptop on a plane or in bed at night. It will always be the same and it will never change. It will be very safe for you. But you'll see something in the theater that will never happen again, and I don't think a lot of people know that today. They haven't been told and they haven't experienced it.
They can see my movie. They can buy the DVD and it might have an effect. Then, I pray that when it does have an effect, they don't see something that uses a prerecorded orchestra, or a soprano with the top notes piped in. I'm fighting to get them to go to the theater, and I pray that when they do, they won't see a road company that's got a click-track underneath them, where the taps are taped.
NR: After all the crazy things that you've gone through to make this film, knowing what you know now, would have still done it?
RM: Yes, I still would have done it, but put it this way - I thank God I didn't know. I was a different age when I started. It's been six years, and that's a long time to give to something. I really couldn't do anything else. I would take little jobs along the way, but when you don't have a crew, you don't have a team, you don't have a studio or a network, you've got to do everything alone. There's no money coming in. I'm begging and raising money every day. I thank God I didn't know. If there's some divine plan, the idea was to keep me naive, and just teach me enough that I could make the movie.
I don't regret a second of it. Who gets to sit at the knee of 100 people that you were inspired by and ask them the secret?. It has made me feel that I'd better really deliver in life, because nobody gets the chance I got. I'd better deliver something that's going to last. It makes me feel good to hear Rolling Stone say, "This is one for the time capsule." You can't fit much in a time capsule, so to think this movie is one that will go in there makes me feel like it was worth the six years.
People come up to me after the film every time, and they're profoundly moved by it. It affects their life. If you make a successful adventure film, it will entertain. That's so valuable, but it's not going to affect anyone's life. How can you regret anything that affects people strongly? To know that people will see Gwen Verdon dance. You'll see her in rehearsal clothes with Bob Fosse talking about how Lola was created. If I hadn't taken the six years, who would have ever seen Laurette Taylor again? No one would have known the woman who affected Uta Hagen, who wrote the book that affected every actor working today. What working actor didn't study Respect For Acting? Every actor working today was affected by Laurette Taylor, and doesn't even know it, and never saw her. Kim Stanley would have been forgotten. What male singer can see this movie and not feel the bar has been raised by John Raitt to do better work? To know that he did that without a mic, over an orchestra eight times a week. It has to raise the bar inside you.
So much of that wouldn't have reached people, so I have absolutely no regrets. Of course, I wouldn't mind a good night's sleep. I could conquer the world with a good night's sleep.
NR: This summer you're going to work on the DVD. Are you going to have extras?
RM: It depends on who we do the final deal with. They're bidding now. Some DVD companies want to do a release with some extras, and then a bigger release later with lots and lots of extras. As much as I love my movie, I can't spend the rest of my life on Broadway: The Golden Age. I've got a screenplay I'm working on now.
NR: (laughing) No vacation on The Riviera to catch your breath?
RM: (smiles) Oh ... I would like a vacation ... but I don't think I can rest because now is the moment that it's out there in the world. I want to be able to go to smaller towns and do Q&A's with the audience, do radio shows, whatever I have to do to help promote the film.
I'm working on a screenplay called Time Will Tell. It's around ten vignettes that all deal with youth and age and the conflict. Think Alec Baldwin and Maureen Stapleton, Patricia Neal and Mary McDonald, Fay Wray and Johnny Depp, Tammy Grimes and Amanda Plummer. The conflict, the passion, the jealousy, the lessons learned. It's going to be a feature narrative film.
NR: Is that the definite cast, or are those your ideas?
RM: Some are definite, some are ideas. There's a lot more too but I can't say yet. I want to put young, talented people that are screen names together with legendary actors they never could have worked with. Each of them is a different narrative story that I'm writing.
NR: That sounds ambitious.
RM: (laughs) It is ambitious, but it's easy compared to this last one! I want something ambitious and I like epic stuff. One thing I've learned from these people - you get spoiled with larger than life legends. I don't think a modern reality show has anything on the talent that I've worked with. These people are bigger than life already.
In a fitting tribute to the spirit of the film, Broadway: the Golden Age had a star-studded, red-carpet premiere on Monday, June 7th. As a benefit for the National Hemophilia Association, it was shown at the Loew's Theater on 42nd Street and of course, the party afterwards was held at Sardi's - the restaurant featured so prominently in the film. Many of the stars were present to relive their memories of the bygone era - Ben Gazzara, Farley Granger, Tammy Grimes, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Celeste Holm, Sally Ann Howes, Anne Jackson, Lainie Kazan, Joan Kobin, Frank Langella, Arthur Laurents, Michele Lee, Phyllis Newman, Donald Pippin, Jane Powell, Rex Reed, Chita Rivera, Marian Seldes, Elaine Stritch, Tommy Tune, Betsy von Furstenberg, Eli Wallach and Fay Wray.
Rick McKay will take part in Q&A sessions with surprise cast members at the following screenings:
ANGELIKA FILM CENTER
Broadway: The Golden Age Cast: Edie Adams, Bea Arthur, Elizabeth Ashley, Alec Baldwin, Kaye Ballard, Betsy Blair, Tom Bosley, Carol Burnett, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Carol Channing, Betty Comden, Barbara Cook, Carole Cook, Hume Cronyn, Arlene Dahl, Charles Durning, Fred Ebb, Nanette Fabray, Cy Feuer, Phil Ford, Betty Garrett, Ben Gazzara, Robert Goulet, Farley Granger, Adolph Green, Tammy Grimes, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris, Rosemary Harris, June Havoc, Jerry Herman, Mimi Hines, Al Hirschfeld, Celeste Holm, Sally Ann Howes, Kim Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Anne Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Lainie Kazan, John Kenley, Joan Kobin, Miles Kreuger, Martin Landau, Frank Langella, Angela Lansbury, Arthur Laurents, Carol Lawrence, Michele Lee, Hal Linden, Shirley MacLaine, Karl Malden, Donna McKechnie, Rick McKay, Ann Miller, Liliane Montevecchi, Patricia Morison, Robert Morse, James Naughton, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Newman, Nicholas Brothers, Jerry Orbach, Janis Paige, Don Pippin, Jane Powell, Hal Prince, John Raitt, Rex Reed, Elliott Reid, Charles Nelson Reilly, Diana Rigg, Chita Rivera, Tony Roberts, Mary Rodgers, Gena Rowlands, Eva Marie Saint, Marian Seldes, Vincent Sherman, Stephen Sondheim, Maureen Stapleton, Elaine Stritch, Tommy Tune, Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon, Betsy von Furstenberg, Eli Wallach, Fay Wray, Gretchen Wyler.
Broadway: The Next Generation Cast: Jason Alexander, Alec Baldwin, John Barrowman, Bryan Batt, Jim Borstelmann, Betty Buckley, Alan Cumming, Daisy Eagan, Tovah Feldshuh, Bonnie Franklin, Joanna Gleason, Ruthie Henshall, Richard Jay-Alexander, Cherry Jones, Simon Jones, Michael John LaChiusa, Cameron Mackintosh, Audra McDonald, Amanda Plummer, Lee Roy Reams, Ann Reinking, Liev Schreiber, Douglas Sills, Mary Testa, Tommie Walsh, Wendy Wasserstein, George C. Wolfe and Karen Ziemba. Peter Gallagher, Christine Pedi and others to be filmed soon.
You can read Nancy's first interview with Rick McKay in our archives.
Search What's New on the Rialto