Broadway: the Golden Age
by Rick McKay, as told to Nancy Rosati
For the past five years, Rick McKay has devoted his life to a very personal project – his film, entitled Broadway: The Golden Age. Because theatrical performances exist only in the memories of those who were there, Rick set out to create a documentary on Broadway by talking to those who were intimately involved.
He interviewed over 100 people on four continents, and his cast list reads like a “Who’s Who of the American Theatre” – Comden and Green, Stephen Sondheim, Kaye Ballard, Gwen Verdon, Betty Buckley, Carol Burnett, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Julie Harris, June Havoc, Al Hirschfeld, Jane Powell, Hal Prince, John Raitt, Elaine Stritch, Audra McDonald, Cherry Jones, and Douglas Sills to name just a few. Each gave his or her own perspective on the many facets of working on Broadway.
With over 250 hours of footage currently in the final editing phase, Rick is considering releasing the film to major international and domestic festivals. He also is shooting for an autumn theatrical debut in New York and Los Angeles, and eventually DVD and video.
Nancy recently met with Rick in his studio. He is so passionate about this project that it seemed best to have him tell the story in his own words.
I grew up in a small town in Indiana. There wasn’t much to do there, so I grew up watching old movies in my basement. I discovered that a lot of those old movie actors started in the theater. There was no theater in my town, not even a movie theater. I started going to the library and looking at the New York Times. I saw that some of the people I had seen in the movies were doing eight live shows a week, and I thought, “This is even better than those movies because it’s live.” I couldn’t see any of it locally, so I started looking on TV. I would look for shows that had been plays that were made into movies. I would watch Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Carol Burnett.
When I was a kid in the '60s, there were no VCRs, so you couldn’t see a show on TV over and over again. You had to scour the TV section in the paper to catch one showing. I would plan to fake being sick on the days when there was a movie I wanted to see. I had to be covert because I was one of eight kids and my brother and I shared a room off the kitchen dining room.
In the early '80s I went to New York to be a singer. I was totally oblivious. In an interview I did for a local PBS show, they asked, “What are you going to do in New York?” and I said, “I’ll take classes in the beginning. I’m going to Herbert Bergdorf’s School” (I mixed up Bergdorf-Goodman with Berghoff). Then I said, “In the beginning, I’ll probably have to do national tours.” Little did I know that was the most difficult job to get.
I thought I could make money singing in supper clubs. When I got here, there was no such thing as a supper club. I thought since I had a “poor man’s John Raitt-type” voice, I’d work, but when I got here, it was completely different. It was the beginning of the English era with Cats and Les Miz. All the singers were “rock tenors” and I was just the opposite – a romantic baritone. I remember at one audition they asked me to sing “an old Broadway-type song” so I sang “Stairway to Paradise.” They handed me The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber and said, “No, we meant a classic Broadway song of today.” I thought, “I’m too young to be outdated,” so I became a solo act.
I made a good living on cruise ships - I was a headliner. I started out opening for acts like Patty Andrews from The Andrews Sisters, and I went on to being a headliner with a ten piece band. It was not the real world. I always tell people that vaudeville didn’t die, it’s just lost at sea. You’d go to the midnight buffet and see the magician with his two dogs, and his assistant in fishnet stockings that were torn beneath the costume. Then there would be the husband and wife dance team. Can you imagine a dance team working today? So, I got in on the tail end of that era. Today, there aren’t a lot of solo acts that make a living singing the American songbook.
She said that she saw the revival because Tyne Daly begged her to come. She said that every week on her day off, Tyne would take the kids from the cast somewhere. One day she told them to bring sunscreen and bathing suits. They thought they were going to the beach but she rented a bus and took them to June Havoc’s farm in Connecticut. They couldn’t believe it. The girl who played Baby June thought it was a fictional character! People don’t know the heritage of these shows.
An idea is born
June Havoc’s assistant, a talented playwright named Tana Sabillio, invited me to their Fourth of July party. She said, “There’s a girl coming who’s an artist. She’s doing a mural of Broadway legends and it would be a great piece for City Arts.” I said, “We’re on hiatus.” But then I started thinking about it and I asked when she was starting. The following week I decided to go shoot it, so that if we did a piece, I would have footage.
I went back six times and followed her painting a blank canvas forty feet long. It was a very interesting canvas for the Visitor’s Center in Times Square. A couple of months later I edited it down to six raw minutes and showed it to the City Arts team but they weren’t interested. I’m the kind of person that once I get involved with something, it’s hard to quit. They said, “It’s very interesting but it’s not us. We want young and hip, but it’s an interesting story,” and they suggested I make it into a short film. Luckily, I had already taught myself to write, produce, shoot and edit.
I had a friend of mine from HBO look at it and she said, “It’s not compelling. There’s no real crisis in it. You ought to get some of the stars in the mural and talk to them about it. That would make it interesting.” I went back and soon realized there was another story focusing just on them. WNET said they would help but they wanted me to target the younger audience. I didn’t want to make the history of an era with only younger actors. I wanted to ask the people who actually lived it. I finally realized that so far I’d shot it and edited it, so I decided I could pull it off myself. I was just naïve enough. If I had known any more, I never would have made it. If I had known any less, I never could have made it – realistically.
What we were doing was basically what Hal Prince did when he produced his first musical, Pajama Game. Edie Adams let him use her apartment and he’d bring Shirley MacLaine and John Raitt. They would pound out the songs on the piano and they raised all the money with a few cocktail parties. We weren’t quite as successful, but we got people to give a tax-deductible donation of a thousand dollars and make it out to the name of the film, in exchange for a credit in the film.
I just kept doing anything I could. I turned down several producing jobs on TV because I knew that if I put the film away I would never finish it. I sold my piano. I did everything I could to get the money, but it was never depressing, it was empowering. Every time I did something like that, I realized that I was really in it for the long haul.
How it's done
It became a challenge to see who I could get to interview for the film. I could write a book about how I got those people. I have 250 hours of interviews now. I can’t use all that. Movie theaters don’t want to show a movie that starts in January and ends in July!
I've kept myself off camera. I originally was not going to even use my voice, but then changed my mind. The film is divided into chapters for manageability purposes. A lot of those start with my voice, asking, “What happened?” or “Am I naïve, or was there really this sense of community?” To that, they have said, “There really was.” Rex Reed said that every night the bars were full of people who were passionate about what they had seen. Today you can’t have bars full of those people. There can’t be that many people who can afford to go. Most audiences are families from Jersey or businessmen or tourists. The average actor can’t go every night to the theater and then discuss it at Sardi’s afterwards. How could a struggling actor ever go to the theater once a week? That's $400 a month!
My natural curiosity led me to ask, “What happened? How did it change?” People were very opinionated. They said there were once writers all over the city, writing the new plays. They said that’s unheard of now. Nobody writes a play now for Broadway specifically. A play may have its final destination as Broadway by chance or luck, but no one writes a play for Broadway. One reason for that, I think, is that producers who make a living on Broadway are not out there looking for writers, saying, “We need a new project. You’re good. I'll pay to to write your next play.” That’s what David Merrick did with Jerry Herman. For Hello, Dolly!, he said, “I think this is a good project for Merman.” He encouraged him to write it, but then Ethel Merman backed out and Carol Channing made history.
Getting the stars - Gwen Verdon
I never thought I'd get a chance to talk to Gwen Verdon. I didn’t grow up watching Gwen Verdon; I'd seen Damn Yankees on TV, but she didn’t reach outside of New York very much. She told me in her interview that in the '50s, she couldn't walk down the street in New York without being mobbed. But in later years, no one knew her, and I think that’s because she didn’t make movies. She started in movies, training Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was the assistant to Jack Cole. When she did Damn Yankees, the first day Bob Fosse told the director that during the song, "just a little this-a and a little that-a" he should go in for a close-up. Of course Bob Fosse was already trying to direct movies, which he would later do. But, the director said, “There will be no close-ups of Miss Verdon. She’s doesn’t have the face for close-ups.” He said it right in front of her. She was horrified. She said, “I never went back to film until I was playing everyone’s grandmother. I didn’t like the way I looked on film, and evidently they didn’t either.”
She was amazing because she showed up a half hour early. The interview took place in my empty apartment. I had rented the apartment, but hadn’t moved in yet. I had nothing in there. I was racing like crazy to get ready and she showed up a half hour early. She said, “Don’t worry. I’ll play with the two cats.” She sat with the cats in her lap and I thought, “This is the real thing. This is royalty,” and she was.
She was so intelligent. She talked of how Bob Fosse taught her about characterization and acting. She told me how she learned how to stand on the stage and do nothing, but command all the attention; how less is more. She told me how a character is like an onion, and you have to peel it away little by little to see all the different layers. I became fascinated, because as an actor and a singer myself, I wanted to know what these people knew. I said, “What did he actually tell you that you could use?” She said things like, “He taught me that Lola in Damn Yankees was not a sexpot. She was the ugliest girl in Rhode Island, and that even though the devil had made her beautiful, inside she was still ugly. She was still a 12-year-old ugly girl. That made my characterization never overtly sexy - never threatening.”
I remember when Alec Baldwin came here to do his interview. I had decided to use some younger actors who were influenced by the theater. I hate to say that he plays my role, but he was someone of my same age group who grew up outside the city and fantasized about coming in. He ended up doing Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange. People think of him as a movie star, but he started out in theater, and he has continued to come back to the stage. I saw him in a play in Sag Harbor last summer by a young playwright - and not a one-nighter - he did it for a month. He also helped start the play reading series at City Center. I have a feeling he'll be back on stage soon.
I could tell when he walked in the door of my small apartment that he was shocked - he had thought he was coming to a studio to make this movie, but now looked like he thought he was going to be kidnapped by some lunatic fan and tied up in his apartment. I never invite stars by saying, “I’m making a movie in my apartment – would you like to be in it?” (laughs) I tell them it’s Second Act Productions and these are all the stars who are in it. One performer's agent told me his client only wanted to meet me because of what people had already said about her in their interviews, that she would only give me fifteen minutes and she needed $1,000 for hair and make-up. You can’t say, “I’m alone making this film. This is a dream” because if you do, they’re not going to appear in it. Then when they say they need hair and makeup, and it’s going to cost $1000, you can’t say that you’ll have to sell equipment to pay for it. So, you say yes and you figure out how to get the money. Well, she did an hour and 20 minutes. She was wonderful and worth every penny.
Alec Baldwin talked about how actors he works with today will finish a movie and say, “I don’t have anything after this.” He’ll say, “Why don’t you do a play while you’re waiting and learn something?” He said they would rather not act than do a play. They believe that they can earn $5,000 a week chasing a babe in a loincloth on a cable channel, and more people will see them in one episode than will ever see them in the theater. They never grew up fantasizing about the theater. They think it’s a waste of time. He said they tune up their instrument between jobs by going to the gym, not appearing on the stage.
When Alec started, he was on a soap opera. Everyone on that soap was doing the job so that they could work in the theater at night. They were all stage people who were doing what they had to do to get there. Now it’s completely different. Younger actors have argued with me when I've told them that a great actress like Cherry Jones said actors should do more stage, but by the same token, she has to do movies too, to afford to stay on stage. It’s a funny thing. I do think it changed. There was a period, the '30s through the '60s, when the stage was the most exciting thing and film was looked down on by serious actors.
Several people who I interviewed are no longer with us. I certainly don't get a warning, like, “So and so will be departing on the 11th. If you want their interview, call now.” Gwen was a real shock because she died in her sleep and she had been so vibrant. After our interview, I walked Gwen downstairs and she said, “I love this apartment. Maybe my daughter Nicole and I can get an apartment in this building and keep our places in the country.” I introduced her to my landlord. He just said “hello” and clearly had no idea who she was. When I walked her out, I offered to get her a car but she said, “No, I’m going to run some errands.” I will always remember her walking down the street by herself. She was so tall and slim. She had heels on and a blue suit, and she walked just like a dancer – fit as can be. I had the equivalent of royalty in my apartment.
Part of me has become so passionate about making sure these people are remembered – so people know “Gwen Verdon” isn’t just a name in the air. When I talked Stephen Sondheim into doing this, he said, “You can’t really make this film.” I asked him why and he said, “You can’t really get the history down just by asking people.” I said, “What if we don’t? Patricia Morison is telling what it was like on the road, out of town with Kiss Me, Kate.” There is no out of town anymore. People don’t go to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and make that circuit. Maybe they go to one city, but they used to go to the same cities every time, and in every different city they would change and improve the show. It was a whole circuit. I said to Sondheim, “I’ve got some people who did out of town shows” and he said, “Yes, but do you have Alfred Drake?” Well, no, but if we don’t do anything, no one will remember any of this happened at all.
But then, Sondheim gave a great interview. He’s wonderfully outspoken, which I appreciate, because when you edit, you don’t want an entire film of everyone saying, “It was swell, it was great.” He talked about how tickets cost $100 apiece now and people choose the hardest ticket to get, a year in advance, and they see one show that year. If they bring their two kids, it’s $400. Add parking and dinner, it’s $600. Then at the end of it, they stand up and scream because they have to feel that after they spent all this money they’re a part of it. Arthur Laurents said they should scale the house. Charge $100 or $200 for the front rows, and the last seats would be $10 or $15.
I have a storyboard that outlines the sections of the film. It’s two thirds a celebration of an era, and then, as a journalist, I can’t ignore the present. The cast talk about struggling and the jobs they had to do, and how cheap the apartments were. Shirley MacLaine found that she could get a glass of water at the automat, find lemons and sugar by the tea, and make free lemonade because she couldn’t afford to buy it.
The next section is about the camaraderie – how everyone met in the same diner to trade ideas – Martin Landau, Bea Arthur ... Carol Burnett tells how four of them pitched in $5 each to buy a $20 dress. They were responsible for reserving it if they needed it, and getting it cleaned. It was one dress that fit them all for auditions because they couldn’t each afford a $20 dress. They talked about sneaking into shows.
Then we have a segment on nightlife and the bars they hung out in. I have a section on Marlon Brando, because people forget that he did five or six Broadway shows before he ever went to Hollywood. He changed theater and acting in America. Charles Durning said he looked like he walked off the street – he didn’t look or act like the idea of an actor at the time. Angela Lansbury, Jerry Herman and Don Pippin talk about how producers didn't want her for Mame because they thought she was too old, and she wasn't well enough known. She wasn't even 40 but she had to fight for the job. It's an incredibly inspiring story.
Next we talk about what happened, how did things change? Actors started going to Hollywood more and they didn’t come back. There was more money for writers in Hollywood so they weren’t writing the plays. Corporations started producing with committees of 12 instead of the single visionary producers they had before.
Then we talk about how stars don’t stay with a show for the long term. If it’s a hit they’re out in six months, unless they’re generous and stay a year. It’s considered unbelievable that Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane stayed with The Producers a year. I'm not saying it's better or worse, but it is so different, which is fascinating to me.
Then we come to the technology phase – stages turning, chandeliers, lasers, helicopters, etc. and how theater changed in the ‘80s. They talk about the different direction it went. Why did shows start miking actors? Producers were trying to give audiences the sound they heard on TV. My theory is that television and film and records were once made for people who couldn't get to New York City to see the theater. You couldn’t see something live so they found a way to artificially capture it, but you always knew you were seeing or hearing something that wasn’t quite as good as the real thing. Why did they make cameras? They didn’t take the first pictures because it would be more interesting to look at a photo. They did it to preserve the reality. So, they made movies to transfer live performance to film, but the real thing was still preferred. But I think, somewhere along the line, the theater started imitating movies, instead of movies imitating theater, which was too bad.
I realized that he’s right – audiences started wanting to see theater do those things, so they started giving it to them. As someone said in the film, the word went out in the community that they had to hire two more people for Sunset Boulevard to yell “stop” when the staircase came on because it was too dangerous. Derek Jacobi said they lost three performances of Uncle Vanya because of technical set problems. But his observation was, “It’s Chekhov! You don’t need all this.”
I think what happens in the theater is so magical, that when they start making it about special effects, you can see that movies always do it better ... and I love movies, I make movies, I go see almost every movie. I can’t afford to see every play, but when I see a play, I don’t want to see them doing what the movies do, because movies are going to do it better. It’s real in a play, and a movie can never ever touch that. As Diana Rigg says in the film, "live theater is the closet thing we have to a miracle in this century.”
Also, they don't build stage stars any more. It’s cheaper that way. They used to put Ethel Merman, Julie Harris, Mary Martin above the title and get that star out there. Then they’d build a new project for him or her the next year. In the film, Cameron Mackintosh says that you have to pay the star, and when the star leaves, you need another star of equal caliber. He said it's much cheaper to make the show be the star. I think they then made the helicopter or the chandelier the star. With no stars to replace, it keeps the operating budget lower.
A lot of people said there’s no reason to have out of town previews anymore because you went out of town for privacy and now the Internet prevents that.
"There is another section where they talk about the first play they saw and how it changed their life, whether Brando or Laurette Taylor or Gwen Verdon. In the end, everyone says that no matter what, the theater will never die. And then over the closing credits are some of my favorite outtakes. You see many of the stars breaking into song and laughing and having a great time.
The film's future
It’s going to festivals this year, hopefully from the spring through the fall. If all goes as planned, we’ll be in a theater in New York and L.A. in October for awards consideration. We're hoping for the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, as I feel that the film should debut in New York. If all goes well, it could have a wider theatrical release. It will also go to DVD and video.
By the way, I didn't get a single corporate or government grant. I've raised the money by sending out packages to real people, begging for $1,000. I sent packages to Broadway producers as well, but no donations came in from them at all. Al Tapper is producing and is a partner now. He was at one of the parties that Jamie deRoy hosted to raise money. He's a talented composer and lyricist, and he's very passionate about the theater. We are very lucky to have him on board!
People ask me, “Why aren’t you covering any of the modern shows?” and I always tell them, “There’s some kid sitting in the Midwest, downloading songs on the Internet from Les Miz and Phantom and other shows. He’ll make his movie in 20 years.” Most of the shows I’m covering weren’t documented. There was no Lincoln Center filming them. I’ve had to fight to find home movie footage.
Another invaluable contributor has been Jane Klain, from the Museum of Television and Radio, who is the special research consultant for the film. I can, and have, worked alone – shooting, writing, lighting, editing, sound, music, color correction, titles, and research. But the money I brought in through Al and Jamie, and the rare footage that Jane found, has made a long, lonely journey a lot easier over the last few years. I am also lucky to have associate producers. Jack Coco came on board officially before even Jamie or Al, and Sandi Durell a few years later. Sandi introduced me to Anne Bernstein, who has most recently joined us and is a great champion of the film as well.
One thing I love about this film is that once you get people to sit down for their interview and they find out that you're fairly intelligent and know what you're talking about, and you're talking about the time of their life they're most proud of, they stay. I’ve realized that for almost all of these people, this was the happiest time of their life. It didn’t buy them the pool and the Bel Air mansion. It didn’t get them worldwide acclaim, but they’re proudest of it. Angela Lansbury said that after Mame she never did anything to compare with that again. For many years, she was a gypsy. She literally went from show to show to show, and that’s the time that they remember so fondly.
Patricia Morison, the original Kate in Kiss Me, Kate, is almost 90. June Havoc’s 90. There’s something about these people who gave their lives to theater - they're so vital. Elizabeth Ashley impressed me with her passion. It's a business. For people who are making a lot of money in film or TV, it’s not possible to have that same passion. Will and Grace may be exceptionally entertaining, but it’s not the same kind of art form. Elizabeth said, “When you work in the theater, you have a responsibility. People are paying far too much money. They’re sitting in a seat that’s too small. They can’t stretch out their legs, they can’t smoke a cigarette, they can’t get a drink, they can’t go to the bathroom. You have an obligation to never ever bore them. You should excite them.” It’s interesting that in film or TV, your obligation is to make a profit. Your obligation isn’t to inspire people in the same way.
Liz Ashley says at the end of the film, “I wish producers would remember the people who dedicate their lives to the theater. They don’t need a movie star or a sitcom star.” Hume Cronyn said when he started it was a great business because you could have three flops a season, and you’d learn from every one of them. Tommy Tune said you’d audition in one week for five different choreographers, like Jerome Robbins, Agnes deMille or Bob Fosse. If you didn’t know the style of one of them, you took his class, because you had to learn. But now shows run 10 or 20 years and some people stay forever. Someone from Les Miz said that the companies that he worked with, some people go in as teenagers and they come out approaching middle age, but they’ve yet to speak a spoken line. They’ve only sung and they never learned to read dialogue. They go to another show and they have no craft. They used to go from show to show to show, which is why they were called gypsies. You couldn’t do that today. If you get into a hit, you’d better stay.
There are only a handful of new shows opening every season, not 30 or 40. One of the producers told me there are whole families in Beauty and the Beast. They’ve met, married, and raised children. Something’s kind of nice about that in a way, but do those performers get as well-rounded as they would if they did nine shows in that time?
Some of the younger performers I spoke with have a different perspective. I said to Daisy Eagan, “People talk about camaraderie back then, saying that everybody would gather at Walgreen’s and they’d compare notes about different shows and jobs. Is there something like that today?” She said, “Really, it’s enough. When you go out after work, you don’t want to talk about it. At night, I don’t want to be with actors. My boyfriend and I don’t want to talk about the business.”
Maybe I’m taking the romantic view of what people gave me, but they say they ate, drank, breathed and slept theater. I believe that they were passionate and it was their whole life to do it. Alan Cumming is great and he certainly appreciates it. He was wonderful about the difference in the theater and how frustrating it is to be miked. As an actor, he was trained to project. Jerry Orbach was adament: "Once it's miked, it’s no longer live.” All the people in the film talked about it. They never were miked. Julie Harris told me that she did 2,000-seat theaters without a mike. She said, “That’s what I trained for.” John Raitt said, “I like to think that I have my instrument and if there’s a piano player, I can do what I do the same way someone did it 200 years ago, anywhere on the globe.”
At that time, orchestrations were made so that strings played under the vocal parts. But Jerry Orbach said when Promises, Promises played, they miked the orchestra for the first time and they had pit singers. It was Burt Bacharach music and they were trying to simulate pop music records. They wanted a studio sound, but he said he still wouldn’t wear a mike. And now they often use recorded sound. Sometimes they record a singer’s top notes and pop them in when they’re having a bad day. But Barbara Cook did “Glitter and Be Gay” eight times a week in Candide. When that show is done in opera, it’s never done more than three times because they don’t expect any soprano to do that. But a musical theater performer did it eight times a week because there was no choice. They simply rose to the challenge the way an Olympic athlete does.
Gwen Verdon said what happened was that the entire audience leaned forward and really, really listened. When I saw Beauty and the Beast recently, people around me had cell phones. They took calls and talked amongst themselves, and why shouldn't they, when it's so highly miked, that they're not as noticeable? When it wasn’t miked, if one person whispered to another, it would irritate everybody because they were listening to the actors. Kim Hunter told me when Marlon Brando starred with her in Streetcar, he was told “no mumbling” because he had to fill the whole theater, and he immediately raised it up to the right level.
Something Alec Baldwin said really inspired me. At the end of his interview I said, “Is there anything you wished I asked you that I didn’t?” (I’ve learned to say that because they might have something wonderful that you never get to.) He said, “All I want to say is that you’re amazing and you should be commended because this is so important. No one ever asks why the theater is magical, or why it’s different. I can tell you really want to know and you’re creating something that’s unbelievable.” He had a very young assistant and on the way here she must have asked him, “What’s a documentary?” so as he got up to leave, he said to her, “If you want to know what an important documentary is," he gestured around my small apartment and said, "Look around you.” I gasped. When he walked in I had seen his eyes darting left and right, and it seemed like he was thinking, “What’s the quickest route out of here?” But when he left he was completely different. I don't know if someone like Alec realizes that when they take the time to say something like that ... well, I fed off of that for months of struggling with the film, and believe me, it was a struggle.
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