Growing up in Indiana, filmmaker Rick McKay didn’t get to see the heralded Broadway performances he kept reading about in his local library. But like many aspiring actors, he became obsessed with the myths. Broadway: The Golden Age is a valentine to all that he regretfully missed. Having arrived in New York during the dismal Andrew Lloyd Webber ’80s, McKay can be forgiven for romanticizing the past. Yet the autograph-hound sensibility that colors his interviews (“What did it feel like to walk into Sardi’s when you were in a hit show?”) provokes mostly unmemorable nostalgia from his roster of geriatric luminaries.
More buff than historian, McKay chats with anyone who can tell him about the good old days, a vaguely defined period that sprawls from the mid ’40s to the late ’60s. McKay fudges his own time frame because he clearly loves meeting show people—the more the merrier, even if it means finding a way to include non-golden agers like Jeremy Irons and Alec Baldwin, or squeezing in Lainie Kazan amid multiple Michele Lee spots.
McKay’s most fascinating line of questioning has to do with the mid-century breakthrough in American acting, foreshadowed by Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, and later seismically realized by the uncanny realism of Kim Stanley and Marlon Brando. Was it mere coincidence that these three extraordinary talents crashed and burned, with Stanley and Brando renouncing the stage in their primes, and Taylor apparently vomiting drink in the wings during her legendary comeback? Or could the perennial state of American theater, clutching for economic survival while panting after cheap celebrity, have contributed to their notorious self-destructiveness?
McKay would rather tell us the giddy tale of Shirley MacLaine’s overnight rise from chorus girl to Broadway star. No need to add that MacLaine packed up her raves and made a beeline straight for the West Coast. Why this fact should delight a musical-theater stalwart like Hal Prince is a mystery. But then even selectively recalled golden ages can’t help revealing their artificial gilt.