Even if you don't consider yourself a stage enthusiast (heck, I've only taken in five or six Broadway productions), you'll be overwhelmed by Rick McKay's joyful 2004 doc Broadway: The Golden Age. The charismatic McKay is a lifelong New York stage expert who, in narration, wealthily frames his movie with reminiscences of a now-unfathomably accessible time for Broadway (you could go see a play starring Marlon Brando for less than it cost to catch a film), then almost singlehandedly embarks on a quest to interview scads of mid-20th century stage stars, intending to center in on their stage recollections. The director ends up talking on-screen to 100 personalities, and emerges with quite a valuable document that--by showing us how important Broadway once was to shaping our taste in music, movies, writing and acting--does no less than put all 20th Century American culture into perspective. Among the subjects on which McKay focuses: the troubled gestation of West Side Story; Shirley MacLaine's storybook Broadway debut in The Pajama Game; the arrival of Brando on the Broadway scene; the now-forgotten matriarch of method acting Laurette Taylor (seen in revelatory, rare archival footage); and Angela Lansbury's stage triumph as Mame (McKay even includes some 8mm footage he secretly shot of Lansbury's performance).
Just a partial list of interviewees--some of whom passed away before or quickly after the film's release--is daunting: Carol Burnett, Martin Landau, Uta Hagen, Alec Baldwin, Robert Goulet, Shirley MacLaine, Jeremy Irons, Gwen Verdon, Al Hirschfeld, Elaine Strich, Carol Channing, Harold Prince, Maureen Stapleton, Robert Goulet, Stephen Sondheim, Kim Hunter, Fay Wray...and the cast goes on and on. McKay's juggling of these pieces is deft; he takes a project that could easily be expanded into a six-hour miniseries and condenses it down to 100 minutes without ever making us feel rushed (McKay is working on two other installments of his Broadway project: one covering the 70s, 80s and 90s; and one covering the present state of the art form). Another thing: unlike the recent PBS miniseries about Broadway musicals, Broadway: The Golden Age gives just as much lip service to dramas by, say, Williams or O'Neill. Adorned with meticulous photo and film research, a closing-credits array of songs sung live by some of the participants, and an obviously obsessive, well-informed passion for the subject matter, Rick McKay's Broadway: The Golden Age is authoritative, essential, and remarkable in every way.