Some of the legendary stories that make up Broadway lore are told by the theater stars who lived them in this PBS documentary that looks at Broadway from 1959 to the early 1980s, a sequel to Rick McKay’s 2003 “Broadway The Golden Age.” But one of the earliest anecdotes in this 90-minute film was previously unfamiliar to me, and among the most riveting.
It comes during the extended discussion of “Once Upon A Mattress,” the 1959 musical that made Carol Burnett a star, and launched the musical theater career of composer Mary Rodgers, then the 28-year-old daughter of Richard Rodgers. George Abbott, a celebrated grand old man of the theater (who would live on for several more decades to the age of 107) had agreed to direct the show if Rodgers could finish it by May, when he could fit it into his busy schedule. It’s the strength of this documentary that both Carol Burnett and Mary Rodgers narrate this part of the story, and it’s fascinating. But then Jane White takes up the story. An actress who was the daughter of Walter White, the long-time executive secretary of the NAACP, she tells us she had had trouble getting cast in any roles “because it was determined I wasn’t black enough….Broadway wasn’t ready to see Black people in anything but a certain color or a certain attitude, or a certain manner of speaking…”
Jack Sydow, George Abbott’s assistant director, thought Jane White would be marvelous for the role of the queen in Rodgers’ musical, and asked her to audition. Abbott didn’t agree: “What are you bringing her in for? We can’t have a Negro playing the queen in a medieval kingdom. It just doesn’t work.” Sydow persisted, arranging to have the actress go to the studio of a makeup artist and photographer who would make her look “more Anglo-Saxon.” In the documentary, Rodgers admits that it was “a little awkward” for the daughter of the “head honcho of the NAACP” to don “white face,” and Jane White was initially hesitant. “They wanted a white actress! Let them get a white actress!” But she wanted to work. “I wanted it so much. And I thought: ‘Now Jane…isn’t that what actors are all about? I mean doesn’t Laurence Olivier put on a funny nose..’” She went to the studio, and got the part – and we see a brief clip of her in it.
There are only a few other moments in this documentary that cast such a harsh light amid the bright lights of Broadway. “Broadway Beyond the Golden Age” generally aims to generate a nostalgic glow. After all, its very existence is an act of love. As host Jonathan Groff explains, the film, which will be on PBS stations starting on August 14, is edited from many hours of interviews with more than 100 Broadway worthies that McKay had conducted over many years working out of a makeshift studio in his apartment. McKay died in 2018. A team of producers finished his passion project.
They tackled the challenge of such an abundance of material in part by bombarding us with quick-hit celebrity comments organized by theme. So a series of famous faces tell us of the thrill of entering the stage door, waiting back stage, going on stage (e.g. Cady Huffman: “When you walk through that stage door, the air is different.” Elaine Stritch: “You know what the scariest word in the world is: ‘Places’’’); more faces tell us about opening night (Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley alternate a humorous account of their first time at Sardi’s, for the opening night of the play in which they co-starred, “The Highest Tree,” which bombed.); still more explain the difference between stage acting and film acting (Shirley Knight: “Film acting is coitus interruptus”) or how they learned from their elders by watching from the wings. (Nanette Fabray would watch Danny Kaye from the wings, and wound up copying the way he used his hands.)
Interspersed with these appetizers are the meat and potatoes of specific shows, told by the people who participated (some of whom have died since McKay interviewed them): “Pippin,” “A Chorus Line”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “42nd Street.” Some of the stories are familiar, nearly mythic, and just as arresting in these versions: the cast of “A Chorus Line” one by one describing that first epic meeting with Michael Bennett that created the blueprint for one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history (Donna McKechnie: “My life is in six different characters”); the cast recalling the whiplash of David Merrick announcing on opening night of “42nd Street” that Gower Champion had died that afternoon. Dick Van Dyke reveals that he only got the role of “Bye Bye Birdie” because he sang Ray Bolger’s signature song, “Once in Love with Amy,” at his audition; the role won him a Tony and helped make him a star because of the song they assigned to him at the last minute, “Put on a Happy Face.” Then there is each and every member of the cast of “Ain’t Misbehaving” telling us about having been cheered by a thousand theatergoers each night, and then never being able to get a taxi to take them home after the show.
“Broadway Beyond the Golden Age” also features what you might call the dessert: High profile celebrities telling long anecdotes. Glenn Close and Harold Prince recount how as an understudy making her Broadway debut in “Love for Love” in 1974, Close replaced the leading actress on opening night because the actress, beset by drugs, was unable to learn her lines. Liza Minnelli narrates how she subbed for Gwen Verdon in “Chicago” — and then we see a clip of her awesome dancing, although the quality of the clip – like most of the clips in “Broadway Beyond the Golden Age” – might make you wish you had seen it in person.
Blurry they might be, but these brief excerpts may be just what Broadway lovers need right now, especially the scene from “42nd Street” where Jerry Orbach urges ingenue Tammy Grimes not to quit and go home, but to stick with Broadway, which has a deep and different resonance at the moment:
“Think of all those kids you’ll be throwing out of work if you don’t do this. Think of a song that will wither and die if you don’t get up there and sing her. Think of the costumes that will never be seen, the scenery never seen, the orchestrations never heard. Think of our show, and the thrill and pleasure it gives to millions. Think of musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language.”