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Revisiting Broadway’s “Golden Age” with Rick McKay

Revisiting Broadway's "Golden Age" with Rick McKay

Revisiting Broadway’s “Golden Age” with Rick McKay

by Brandon Judell

Director Rick McKay with “Broadway” interviewee Carol Channing. Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

There no business like show business, and — according to Rick McKay‘s new doc “Broadway: The Golden Age,” that biz was at its cultural zenith in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s on the Great White Way. In fact, during one week back then, a theatergoer was able to choose from “The King and I,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “I Am a Camera,” “Guys and Dolls,” Uta Hagen in “Saint Joan,” Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam,” and a dozen more. Some nice options.

To recall that era with finesse, McKay, a former segment producer on WNET13‘s “City Arts,” has interviewed more than a 100 Broadway stars including Fay Wray, Eli Wallach, Gwen Verdon, Bea Arthur, Alec Baldwin, Lainie Kazan, Carol Lawrence, Jane Powell, and Jeremy Irons. The result is an often witty, constantly moving, momentarily rapturous, always informative entertainment.

The following chat with the director/editor/cameraman took place at this year’s Palm Beach Film Festival where a recut version of the film was shown. It won the best documentary audience award there in 2003 with an earlier cut. Dada Films opens “Broadway” on Friday.

indieWIRE: Last year indieWIRE mentioned “Broadway” as one of the best undistributed films of the year. How did you finally get distribution?

Rick McKay: The folks who run the Egyptian Theater [in L.A.] called and asked me if I would bring the film there. I said, “It’s not finished.” They said, “We read about it in Palm Beach and Palm Springs” where I did a private screening for Kaye Ballard’s charity. I said, “You can show it as a rough cut” because I started recutting the film, and they said, “OK.”

Well, Robbie Little, who was the owner of First Look, came that night. He didn’t want to come interestingly enough, but Gretchen Wyler, who’s a big animal-rights activist, got Robbie’s wife to come. Robbie, who was kicking and screaming, was saying: “The last thing I want to do on my night off is go see a documentary, and the last thing I want to see is a documentary about Broadway, which I don’t care about.” His wife later said all the way through the screening, Robbie was laughing and crying. She asked, “Who is this man that’s replaced my husband?”

Afterwards, Robbie said, “I’m buying this movie. This is unbelievable.” And he waited an hour and a half outside for me because this movie attracts fanatical fans. So a lot of people wait to talk to me, and tell me “You must put Ethel Merman in,” and they then tell you what else you have to do.

As luck would have it, Robbie ended up selling the company in-between, but the president of First Look started Dada Films, a new company. Well, the head of marketing and Robbie, a kind of a silent part of that, decided they wanted “Broadway” to be the film they launched the company with. So we’re that one-in-a-million doc that’s going the distance.

But who knew how it would turn out? Back last June when we received a half-page rave in Variety, Jonathan Dana, my producer’s rep, said, “The feeding frenzy has begun.” It was a very difficult thing to have all those studios interested in your film and saying, “It’s genius.” Then a week later, some 25-year-old marketing executive tells them, “I don’t know how to sell this movie. Everyone in it is 70 years old, and theater’s corny. How are we going to get people to see it?” So the execs then say, “We love it but we don’t know how to sell it.”

I can’t tell you how many said that. They wanted it, then they got scared, but Dada did not. They said, “We know millions of people who would like to spend a night with these people.” I think they’re right because it’s won a lot of awards since then.

But you know I never counted on anybody. That’s one thing I knew instinctively. Anyone could change their mind and leave. So I just kept going to festivals, and I kept recutting “Broadway,” and the [Dada folks] were panicked. They were like: “Stop it!” But I knew not to stop. We would never have had Ben Gazzara if I’d stopped. And even as Ann Miller and Uta Hagen and people were dying, I was recutting the end of the film [the obit section] while it was in the lab and saying, “You’ve got to include them in the end” while it was being transferred to 35.

iW: Were you ever afraid the film wouldn’t hold together? That it wouldn’t be cohesive?

McKay: Well, I always knew that I could recut, but I didn’t want to recut and make it what would be more of a whole. What I hoped would happen did. That I would follow exactly the stories these folks told me, and I’d let them tell me how the film ended, and it would work. My biggest fear wasn’t that it wouldn’t hold together. My biggest fear was no one would care. I thought what if I’m the only person that’s interested in this era.

I was very surprised that the first time I screened it, which was at Palm Beach, that the audience laughed out loud at so much of it, and that people were crying and laughing at the some time. I thought, “Oh! it must be just because these people used to live in New York.” But then I found the same reaction happened in Denver. It happened in Oregon. It happened in Ohio. It happened in California, where everyone said no one would be interested.

Well, we sold out at the Egyptian, and there was a waiting line, wherein San Diego we won. Santa Barbara we won. It turned out that everyone has this closet theater queen in them.

People think Broadway’s the legitimate relative to Hollywood. The one that’s the real thing. Somewhere inside them, they all want to know about it. “Broadway: The Golden Age” is just the story of struggle, and everyone has struggled for something or dreamed of something even if they didn’t follow it. Even people with safe jobs have wondered what it might be to go out on the limb.

This doc is about 100 people who left their small towns, or just crossed the river, or just departed a borough, and went out on a limb on Broadway. Back then when everyone else was going to Hollywood, they were coming to New York, and they all succeeded because none of them wanted to be superstars. They wanted to work onstage, and they all did, and they’re all so proud of it: the Angela Lansburys, and the Shirley MacLaines, and the Eva Marie Saints.

Carol Burnett, in fact, agreed to just a 10-minute interview, and an hour and a half later, she was still telling me stories about five girls living together in one room with no money. Then she got her big break: “Once Upon a Mattress.”

These folk did it 8 times a week with no microphones over a 30-piece orchestra for 1500 people. They didn’t have a studio helping them. There was no editor to take the best cut, and they were so proud of that. It still moves me because I thought, “Wow! Broadway’s the last frontier of an artist.” With film, you can save a performance like they did for Elizabeth Taylor many times. On Broadway, you can’t recut and build a performance in the edit room. You’re alone out there. Make no mistake about it.

iW: What you have now in your vaults is over 100 interviews, each about an hour long.

McKay: I have a total of about 300 hours. About 140 interviews, and for every interview that’s really short, there’s an Elizabeth Ashley or a Betty Buckley interview that’s a good three hours.

iW: Do you have any idea what’s going to happen with the rest of the footage? Donating it to a library?

McKay: Well, a lot of people have mentioned to me about a series, and not a traditional PBS Ken Burns series. I’m thinking more of an “Inside the Actors Studio” minus the unctuous host.

iW: Thank God.

McKay: No index cards. No host insinuating himself. Just a half-hour segment instead of an hour. I’m thinking of it as 24-minute segments of undiluted legends telling their stories.

iW: And the footage you won’t use?

McKay: I will donate it in the end.

iW: Was it hard for you to use only a few minutes of each interview in your final product, after all you were talking to the likes of Charles Nelson Reilly, Stephen Sondheim, and Maureen Stapleton?

McKay: The film is 111 minutes. I cut from 140 legends down to 91, so actually each person only has about a minute and change for the whole thing. It was almost impossible to cut them down, using one per cent of each interview.

The thing that made it easier was the fact that it wasn’t about what I liked. The story began to tell me of these people’s struggles. So then it became how each person could finish the other’s sentences. Since I also edited the film, and I started editing five years ago in bits and pieces to try to raise money, as I would edit, I’d see what I needed. I would then include that in my questions.

When Mary Rodgers said she never liked the music for “West Side Story” when she heard it every night, I would tell Chita Rivera, “You know Mary Rodgers said she never got it.” Then Chita would respond, “I got it.” Then when I told Hal Prince the story, he’d say “I totally got it” which made it much more cuttable for me.

I tried to think of myself as being the conduit in a room, and I put all of the invitees in the room with me at a party so that I was the one who was silently listening as they had the same conversation, even though it had taken place over five years and in four countries. I then cut it together so they were finishing each other’s sentences and arguing back and forth. That made the cutting a little easier.

iW: The editing was fabulous.

McKay: Thank you very much. I think part of it, if it is good, is because not many editors get to shoot, and not many shooters get to edit, but since I was doing both, I could ask people for what I needed without telling them. It was like an art form of romancing them into giving you what you needed. So I would use that.

The last person I interviewed for the film was Ben Gazzara. But he’s an example of someone I didn’t even have to romance. When I asked him, “What the first thing you ever saw on Broadway?” he said, “I was a kid growing on the East side of New York, and I was in a boys’ club, because that’s where you went when you’re a kid with no money. Well, there was a guy there with a drama group who took us to the theater to see Laurette Taylor.”

It’s staggering when you are sitting there five years later after you have started you movie, and this guy tells you a story about Laurette Taylor, who is as you know a main part of the film. At the time, you don’t think it’s possible that anyone else could have really seen her. I ended up changing the film so that Gazzara ended the chapter on Laurette.

You saw how he says, “We’ve all spent the rest of our lives trying to be Laurette?” Few people would think this tough Cassavetes actor wanted to be Laurette Taylor, the star of “The Glass Menagerie,” when he grew up. (Laughs)

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