Broadway The Golden Age
Believe it or not, there was a Broadway once where live theater cost less than a movie. There was a Broadway where performers were not miked, where music wasn't pre-recorded, where a special effect was something done by an actor, not a technician, and where a season dominated by revivals was still a thing unimagined. There was a time when New Yorkers considered the theater a part of their birthright, and went to Broadway the way we now go to Blockbuster. There was a time when the theater listings bulged with new shows by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, and Cole Porter, shows populated with stars like Marlon Brando, Ethel Merman, Laurence Olivier, Geraldine Page, Henry Fonda, and Ethel Waters, all blazing at one glorious moment along the constellation known as the Great White Way. At the time, nobody thought of it as a golden age. Broadway had been dubbed "the fabulous invalid" by playwright George S. Kaufman back in the '30s, and while some of it was indeed fabulous, there was plenty of invalid to it as well. But with time, memories age to a mellow sweetness, and now the veterans who were there for the years that stretched from the early '40s into the '70s remember a theatrical Camelot.
Much of it, certainly, is the nostalgic sepia of age-colored glasses looking back on the Eden of youth, and it is certainly true that to feel the full impact of this movie one needs certain entries on one's r?sum?. A love of theater is a must, and a little gray hair doesn't hurt, but if you're a theater aficionado you don't have to have been present or even alive in that time and place to feel the glow of those golden years. In filmmaker Rick McKay's gloriously sentimental scrapbook of a tribute, stars look back on how it was to get off the bus at Times Square with a cardboard suitcase, a head full of ambition, and a heart full of hope. "I had no idea where I was going to stay," Carol Burnett remembers, and she checked into the Algonquin because it was a place she'd heard of. But her room was an astronomical $9 a night, and she soon decamped for a room downtown with some other aspiring actresses. In addition to splitting the rent, they shared a special dress - whoever had an audition wore it and then had it cleaned.
The glamour of Broadway was the stuff of dreams. They all knew it in black-and-white, from the movies. "I just kept pinching myself," Barbara Cook recalls. They lived four and five to a room, they ate at the Automat or gathered at Gray's Drugstore to drink coffee and swap audition tips, they pounded the pavement and worked odd jobs. And they went to the theater. Three names keep coming up when they reminisce about the great actors who shaped their approach to their craft. Leading the list is Laurette Taylor, an actress now largely forgotten because she never made movies. But her legendary performance in "The Glass Menagerie" is something these famous stars speak of with a reverent hush in their voices. "It was the greatest performance I ever saw," says Patricia Neal, and they all went back again and again (and you could do that at those prices) to marvel at what she did. Which was practically nothing. "I thought they'd just pulled her in off the street," Charles Durning marvels. "She was so natural."
Kim Hunter is another of the actors' icons, and McKay has unearthed some wonderful black-and-white footage of her in "Bus Stop". And when they speak of Marlon Brando - and particularly when the women speak of Marlon Brando - the awe fairly fogs the screen. It was a kind of paradise, this community of aspiring actors struggling, starving, hanging out at Downey's until they could start hanging out at Sardi's, starting to make it, going out there a nobody and coming back a star. Of course the people McKay talks to are all among the lucky few who rose to the top, and fifty years from now some young filmmaker will be doing this all over again with veterans of the original casts of Hairspray and Rent.
A few saw the change coming. The day after "Hair" opened in April of 1968, Richard Rodgers told a friend "I think my kind of musical is finished." When Kaye Ballard returned to Broadway in '82 in "Pirates of Penzance" she found "a whole different kind of show business I don't understand." Mikes and canned music, helicopters and railroad trains, and actors who sometimes had other things to do than to show up at the theater. And ticket prices that were beginning already to turn the Broadway theater into something to be saved up for and planned a year in advance, not something that was part of the everyday life and culture of the people who lived there. Still, the magic of theater remains that it's live. "I think what happens in the theater is a kind of a miracle," says Dianna Rigg, and Jeremy Irons adds "If you see a great performance, you know it may never be as good as that again."
The theater is live, like life itself, and there are moments in all our lives, golden moments that we barely notice as they slip by, but when we look back we realize it may never be as good as that again. "Somebody should film that," Kaye Ballard remembers saying when she saw Laurette Taylor's "Glass Menagerie". Nobody did. But Rick McKay has recorded a priceless living history of a special time and place in American culture, and for that, those of us who care can be grateful.
© Text 2004 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be