3 min

Behind the curtain

Mesmerizing stories of a golden, by-gone era

Credit: Xtra files

Al Pacino spat on me. It was glorious. It was back in 1982-ish and I was attending a performance of David Mamet’s American Buffalo at The Circle In The Square off-Broadway. Pacino was the star and how I scored a seat eight feet away from the stage I don’t remember. Having just seen …And Justice For All, I had a feeling he’d be a spitter but I didn’t expect such a tangible verification. Needless to say, the memory of that electric saliva has been etched in my show-biz-centric mind. And it’s a memory that was conjured up while I enjoyed Broadway: The Golden Age, the new feature by dancer-turned-documentarian Rick McKay.

The golden age referred to in the title is the entire pre-Hair era, but primarily the 1940s and ’50s. By interviewing a cornucopia of Broadway legends over a five-year period, McKay attempts to explain why, to put it crassly, Broadway was so great back then and so lousy now. What he has created is anecdote heaven.

Bea Arthur, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Tammy Grimes, Robert Morse, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett, Carol Channing, Jerry Orbach and Elizabeth “Cigarette” Ashley are among the luminaries who regale us with tales of 10-cent lunches at the Automat, of 50-cent tickets for orchestra seats, of all-night double-feature binges on 42nd St. Hal Linden recalls his own “Pacino” moment when he was sweat upon by James Earl Jones during a performance of The Great White Hope. Carol Burnett tells us of the $20 dress she shared with four other hopefuls in the Rehearsal Club. Charles Nelson Reilly, in his element here, admits to making dinner plans with Vincent Gardenia on stage.

And the understudy stories are All About Eve terrific: Shirley MacLaine filling in for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game; Michele Lee replacing Lainie Kazan in See-Saw; Gretchen Wyler plowing over two rivals and nabbing the starring role in Silk Stockings. Meow, big time.

Songwriters are well represented here, too. Jerry Herman brags of his conspiracy with a Mame-craving Angela Lansbury. Stephen Sondheim bemoans a terrible West Side Story backers’ audition. Comden and Green take us on the road with Subways Are For Sleeping. And the late Fred Ebb re-lives his experience seeing Laurette Taylor in The Glass Mena-gerie: “Taylor turned around and pulled down her girdle, and I have never been that affected by a stage action in my whole life. It made me weep.”

Indeed, if this doc has a star it’s Laurette Taylor. Almost every artist interviewed had been rendered awestruck by this sad little alcoholic ex-silent-film ingénue. (Maureen Stapleton did “a lot of walkin'” after beholding Taylor’s achingly real Amanda Wingfield.) The only surviving sound film footage of Taylor- a 1938 screen test – reveals an actress too authentic to handle… it’s mes-merizing.

Revered almost as much as Taylor, are Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Kim Stanley and we are treated to footage of them. (It’s clear Marilyn Monroe impersonated Stanley when she shot Bus Stop.) Rare archival clips give us Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon rehearsing Damn Yankees, Richard Burton contemplating Camelot and John Raitt barking Carousel. And yes, there’s even an audio recording of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy nailing the rape scene in Streetcar.

Although this feature feels a little like a PBS special, it works. Clever titles punctuate the segments delicately. Background music is employed with restraint. And some sly editing results in Elaine Stritch inadvertently calling Tommy Tune stupid. Who could ask for anything more?

* Broadway: The Golden Age is now playing at the Varsity (55 Bloor St W); (416) 964-2463. Look for a DVD coming this Christmas.

Lisa Lambert is living her own Broadway dream this week as she’s in New York in preparation for a festival spotlight of her hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone. Lambert’s “show-biz-centric mind” is on fire because, in addition to Lea DeLaria, Christine Ebersole, Richard Kind, Danny Burstein, Christopher Sieber and cocreator Bob Martin, cast includes Georgia Engel who, among other roles, played Georgette on Mary Tyler Moore. “I’m rewriting the whole thing,” says Lambert, with a laugh, “It’s Georgette!” An abbreviated 45-minute version of The Drowsy Chaperone plays The National Alliance Of Musical Theatre’s (NAMT) annual Festival Of New Musicals the weekend of Oct 3.