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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Misha Berson
Was there really a golden age of Broadway? And if so, what happened to it?
Broadway buff Rick McKay poses those questions, and tries to answer them, in "Broadway: The Golden Age," an enjoyable, award-winning documentary slated for a week's run at the Varsity.
On a personal mission to capture Great White Way lore from true Broadway guys and dolls, McKay took his movie camera ("no budget, no crew") to film aging show people recalling a theater district with twice as many shows and according to them a thousand times more pizazz than today's Broadway.
McKay's straightforward cinematic valentine, which also includes rare archival stage footage, is a treat for those bedazzled by the idea of Broadway in its prime. (Those who could care less about the development of "West Side Story," or how Shirley MacLaine got her big break in "The Pajama Game," should maybe take a pass.)
Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Chita Rivera, Patricia Neal and many other aging Broadway hands (including lyricist Fred Ebb, who died earlier this month) relate colorful tales of a glittering Times Square in the 1940s and '50s. If you made it there, baby, you made it everywhere.
Burnett remembers living in the boarding house that inspired the Katharine Hepburn movie "Stage Door" and being so broke she shared one good "audition dress" with several other aspiring thesps. Former song-and-dance man Orbach praises the wonders of "unmiked sound" in Broadway theaters and the joy of paying only a few bucks to see big hits.
Martin Landau reports on the magnetism of young stage comer Marlon Brando ("otherwise known as God," cracks Elizabeth Ashley). Others recall making merry at the Stork Club, Sardi's, the Copa and various bars and drugstores where actors congregated in the wee hours.
There's exaggeration and mythification here, not surprisingly. And there's despair and anger about Broadway's declining cultural cachet and artistic vitality. (No mention is made of vital regional theaters around the country; maybe that's another film.)
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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