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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Fair
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Broadway: The Golden Age

Broadway, that fabulous invalid, has been ailing for so long - even the phrase "fabulous invalid" is over 50 years old - that you start to wonder whether it was ever in decent health. Well, wonder no more. Filmmaker Rick McKay, who grew up in Beech Grove, Ind., far from the bright lights of 42nd Street, has compiled a documentary that not only gives his regards to Broadway, it gives the regards of everyone still alive who was around for what McKay considers the Great White Way's glory days, roughly the '40s through the '60s. Broadway: The Golden Age contains the reminiscences of 91 hoofers and belters, producers and directors, composers and lyricists, not to mention the dramatic actors who trod the boards, and the result is a fan's mash note, a valentine that McKay spent five years working on. Born too late to see Ethel Merman raise the rafters, he takes us back to a time when everything was coming up roses.

Alas, many of Broadway's legends, like Merman, are now pushing up daisies. Several of McKay's interviewees died after he interviewed them. Several more died after he completed the film. And the rest are getting on in years. Nevertheless, it's great to see them all again, mugging for the camera like it's their first Broadway audition. Carol Channing, looking more than ever like an Al Hirschfeld caricature, does that thing she does. Shirley Mac Laine channels her past. Jerry Orbach reminds us that he had a life before "Law and Order." And Rob ert Goulet warbles "If Ever I Would Leave You," having long ago left Broadway for the jackpots and fleshpots of Vegas. Leading ladies like Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Angela Lansbury have their say. Brando, though not interviewed, gets the requisite salute. But it's the more obscure legends who tantalize the most: Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Laurette Taylor.

None are interviewed, but all are recalled with admiration and, in Taylor's case, awe. As Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Taylor appears to have revolutionized American acting, achieving a degree of naturalism that made it seem as if she'd been (in Charles Durning's words) "pulled off the streets." No audio record exists of Taylor's theatrical performances, but McKay includes a Hollywood screen test she did in 1938, and it's amazing how quickly she casts a spell. Casting a spell quickly is the Broadway baby's stock in trade, of course, and McKay's babies, though hobbled by age, have no trouble holding our attention. One might wish they'd spent more time talking about what set the Golden Age apart from other ages, but it's hard to feel anything but gratitude toward McKay. With Broadway on its very last legs, he had the good sense to grab his camera before the parade passes by.

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