An Interview with Rick McKay

Broadway: The Golden Age Week starts officially on Monday featuring daily, NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN footage from Rick McKay's Broadway: The Golden Age Vaults. To kick things off, we checked in with the filmmaker about the success of the film, its upcoming airing on PBS, the sequels and lots more...

Broadway: The Golden Age is the most comprehensive film ever made about America's most celebrated indigenous art form. Upon its theatrical release, the film earned unanimous rave reviews and unparalleled support and adulation from both Broadway stars and fans alike. Now, the film comes to PBS airing throughout the country for its March pledge drive airing around the country throughout the month, and premiering in New York on March 12th.

Rick McKay's love affair with Broadway goes back to when he was a child, and he still holds a special place in his heart for the first show he saw - Applause. "The first show I saw in a legit theatre when I was a kid, and I'm dating myself, was Applause. It's not a very good show, but that's what I remind myself of when young kids get mad at me and say 'you make a film like this and say that it's all over with the Golden Age!' and they try to tell me that we're in a Golden Age now, by referencing shows that aren't very good, I think to myself - you could not have told me that Applause was not the greatest show ever written when I was younger so I know what it's like. It has defied revival, even though it has been on the road, and I can't even critically look at it, because as a kid it was the perfect show for me to see."

The show was a perfect starter for a kid that grew up in a small town in Indiana loving musicals, and living on old movies. "One of my favorite films growing up was All About Eve. I loved all the musicals, and especially the backstage shows in the movies, and that's what made me want to move to New York, but I didn't know anything about the theatre in Indiana. It was the shows in the movies that I lived on in Indiana. For me to find out that there was a Broadway show, starring an old movie star, about Broadway, based on the old movie All About Eve, but with Broadway songs. I thought this is impossible! It's everything! What more could anyone want? And, with a comeback no less! I loved the drama, and the backstage stuff, and of course in real life Lauren Bacall won the Tony and her career was resuscitated."

His love affair with theatre continuing, McKay then moved to New York in his early 20s. "I moved to New York in the early 80s, and started coming here in 1978, because - many pounds ago - I was studying dance in Indiana on a scholarship and I would come here to take classes with Louigi who was on 63rd and Broadway at the time. I remember seeing Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, and I remember seeing 42nd Street, and I knew when I saw 42nd Street that it was the last time I'd see anything like that on the stage again. Even taking 42nd Street as an example, by the time that it was revived 20 years later, the whole business was different, and even 42nd Street was different. It was a smaller show the first time, and there was something old-fashioned about it. It wasn't gigantic. I remember sitting in the 3rd row for Pirates of Penzance, and seeing them all so close, the talent of Kevin Kline, George Rose, Estelle Parsons, and just shaking my head. It was hard for me come on a trip and see Kevin Kline and Estelle Parsons in one show, and Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in another show. Talk about unbelievable talents!"

Coming here as a student led McKay to discover another facet of theatre going, both then and now - second acting. "I remember when I first moved here, I would see everything, and that's when I discovered second acting. I had to name my company Second Act Productions for two reasons - partly because I don't believe F. Scott Fitzgerald when he said that 'American lives have no second act,' and partly because I couldn't afford to go to the theatre, so the only way was second acting. I thought what other name is there?"

At the time, McKay had the art of second acting down to a science. "I would call the theatre, and say that I had a ticket to the show, and was meeting friends, (there were no cell phones then), but I can't get there on time, can you tell me when intermission is? I didn't even want to wait. If I was going to second act, I'd bring my Playbill from home, I didn't wait to pick one up and I came exactly on time to join the crowd. I'd stand by the ladies room (pretending I was waiting for something), and the usher would say 'sir, the show's starting' and I would say 'would you please tell her when she comes out that I've gone back to my seat?' because I knew I could then see right away what seats were free, and I wouldn't draw suspicion."

That all changed though, a few weeks after September 11th. "I'm ashamed to say that the theatre was in such bad shape that part of my heart broke and the other part thought - I bet it's easy to second act this week. It was a few weeks after, but the reason I remember it is that when I went they checked every bag and every ticket, and I thought not only have our whole lives changed, second acting is going to be over because of the security. Not only is the theatre world struggling to get through this, but young actors can't sneak into the theatre now. That's really bad news. I don't remember what the show was, but I didn't succeed. Now, that I have a little bit of notoriety with the film, it's bad if I was to do that now!"

Once he became a resident of the city, McKay spent his first year taking in as much theatre as he could while living at the Times Square Motor Hotel, and waiting tables at the Hyatt Regency. "I remember seeing in that first year that I was here - Amadeus with Ian McKellen and Lena Horne in The Lady and Her Music, which I saw about three times, because I was fascinated with one person on that stage being able to control an entire audience for the whole night. I was stunned by it! I have strong memories of The Westside Waltz with Katharine Hepburn, and I was there one night when she stopped the show and yelled at a man who took an instamatic picture. She turned to the audience and asked 'Who took that picture? We'll just wait. Give me your camera, and I'll give you your money back and you'll just go home. There will be no show for anyone!' and we all sat there looking out of the corner of each eye, feeling guilty even though it wasn't you who had done it. It was like the school mom! She was magical, and by the time I got from my orchestra seat to the front door, she was already gone outside the door, and there was a crowd there that she used to move away with her umbrella going 'move, move, move' as she got into her car. I looked at my watch and it was 10:25. So now, you have this young struggling actor, and some nights when I had no money and went to the movies with a friend, I'd look at my watch and say 'Oh, I've got a surprise for you,' and we'd go to Times Square and I'd surprise them at exactly 10:25 in front of the theatre. Katherine Hepburn would fly out of the theatre with her umbrella going "move, move, move out of the way. That was rude, rude, rude." And whoever I brought would go 'Oh my God that's Katharine Hepburn!' And I would go 'only in New York' I did it 5 or 6 times, I wasn't a stalker, but I had no money and if you could see Katharine Hepburn for free - you did!"

A theatergoer for his whole life, and often on the other end of this same question, one wonders what Rick would select as his favorite shows. "I ask everybody that, but I'm never prepared for it to tell you the truth. It's all mixed up in my head, because making this movie, I feel like I'm living in two eras. One side of me is here, and the other side is back with the original production of The Pajama Game, with Carol Haney out and Shirley MacLaine going on, and Carol Burnett telling me about standing at the stage door waiting to get in, and starving, and it's as current to me as anything. Gypsy always comes to mind, and I saw a good production of that with Tyne Daly, and another with Bernadette Peters. I could say what I think the great shows are, or the great scores are but I didn't experience it with Ethel Merman or with Angela Lansbury so it's tough for me to compare. I do remember that Amadeus had a tremendous effect on me, because I knew that I was seeing something special, and it shook me up."

Another show that made an impact? The earliest production of Angels in America. "I saw Angels in America in London before it came here in a very small theatre, with a very small cast, no effects, nothing, and that devastated me. I walked for days after that, just thinking about the show. I remember that I read here when they had to cancel a show because the lasers weren't working, and I thought - why do you need lasers? And it was a great production here, but I always thought - why do you need it? That's the thing, in my film they all talk about mics and effects and everything, and I always felt that way. Since I'm a filmmaker and got into film a longtime ago, I think that in a movie theater that every trick should be used in a world. Why was Joan Crawford still playing the girl next door at age 60? Because of thick filters of course! It was all fake...movies are all fake but theatre is different. It's the last place that you can get the real thing. Today, a lot of shows have choruses dubbed by voices of people in the original production that were recorded and left the shows long ago. High notes of a soprano are sometimes pre-recorded, and now that I'm in the middle of the second film, this being a trilogy, I'm as to close the present as I am to the Golden Age, and the 30s, so I'm torn back and forth."

These are of course all messages of The Golden Age film, which is now on PBS in March. "I remember when I first started this project, that I was at CityArts at PBS, and I brought this in and showed it to my producers. I showed them just 5 minutes of footage and they said - 'you don't understand what you have, this is so powerful, this would be great for pledge drives around the nation.' They made an appointment for me with the Channel 13 pledge department and the guy at 13 said 'no one would ever watch this, it's all old people.' I was devastated. Now, 6 years later, we just went in and filmed the promotional stuff with Barbara Cook, Liz Ashley, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and Jane Powell, and everyone at 13 was coming over to shake my hand to say how excited they were. And I thought how in the world could this come full circle? The movie went on to become a theatrical film, and onto DVD, but now it's full circle back to PBS."

The lure of airing the film on PBS is of course the wide audience that the film can now reach. "It's a fascinating circle this week and you know now that film can reach someone at a young age, who is first discovering the theatre. The dream for independent film makers is to get on HBO, the edgy cable operator, but what if a kid doesn't have HBO? I feel like anyone with an old, beat-up 12 inch TV and a coat-hanger for an antenna should be able to see my movie and that is powerful to me, because face it if you just wanted to make money I'd be in Hollywood making sitcoms and made for TV movies, or reality TV."

Especially in its earlier days, making Broadway: The Golden Age was certainly a labor of love, making a product for a limited audience, and who better to comment on such a thing than Stephen Sondheim? "I asked Sondheim, 'what are we doing here? Are we crazy not to sell out where the money is,' and I asked him if it was tempting for him to write bad commercials or junk, shooting for the lowest common denominator? And he said 'you seem like an intelligent man Rick, but I think you don't understand. The people that write, what you call junk, that all of America, the lowest common denominator watches, don't think that they're writing junk. Everybody writes to the best of their ability, they just have something in common with the majority of people that watch TV, so they think, and are doing the best writing that they think they can do and it's what people want to see. When you try and write down to them, you're lousy at it, you can't do it. Those people aren't selling out.' That was a revelation for me - on one hand, it made me think I couldn't sell out even if I wanted to, I'd be lousy at it. The other side of me thought, if you're not going to sell out, I might as well do as well as I can with what I'm doing."

Audiences reacted both emotionally and passionately to the first film during its theatrical and DVD releases, and McKay traveled the country hosting Q&As at screenings, and garnering as much local press as he could for it. "I remember that in Chicago there were lines around the block for the theatre when I came to do a Q&A, and I found that to be amazing. In Atlanta it was the same, also Denver. In San Francisco it was great, because by then it had been 'dumped.' The theatres had booked it, but the distributor had left their job and gone somewhere else, so the movie was just out there as a loose wheel, but the theatres were booked. I just started calling theaters myself, and asking if they wanted me out there to do a Q&A and I'd stay in a cheap motel and would fly myself out. I'd be talking to ushers basically on the phone, who would ask me if I wanted to do the 6pm and 8pm, and I'd say I'll do every showing, and they said 'are you crazy, no one ever does that.' I'd say 'true, but I'm there, I'm not coming to Washington DC to tour the White House!' So, I'd do them all, and then theatres would start calling me to ask 'is it true that you'd really come and do a Q&A?' And I'd always say yes, I'll come and I'll do it all day, and they won't believe it. Often, I'd have to go and grab an usher and ask him to tell people who were going to leave during the credits that they might want to stay because we have a surprise guest appearance for you today by the director, and the usher would say 'Oh, yeah I'll do it, but it doesn't matter because they never leave. We don't have time to sweep your theater because no one leaves during the credits. Boy, that's really irritating' And I thought 'ooh, that's good', and they say 'why do I have to stand and tell people?' I'd say 'as director, I shouldn't be the one to ask people to stay, that's pathetic. If people have to go to the bathroom then, they get embarrassed - let me out!'"

So does McKay have any favorite stars thus far? "From the first one, I think that Sondheim was pretty up there as a favorite, and Angela Lansbury was good, guarded but good. My favorite moment is when somebody who is cautious, but I can get them to open up in spite of it, and Jerry Orbach was like that. He kept his eyes closed when I asked questions because the light was bothering him, and he'd think about it, and then open his eyes and answer, without looking at me directly. It was like a public service announcement, and I thought that is bad, this is useless because everyone else has been so natural. But then I kept asking him more things, and when I asked about Kim Stanley suddenly he lit up and said "I did summer stock with her" and he lit up, and was a different person. Then I asked him about starving, and what did you do at night, we did another hour of real talk. He said 'everyone thinks I came out of the womb as Jennifer Grey's father in Dirty Dancing, no one knows I did Broadway, no one cares. Does anyone know that Gwen Verdon did Sweet Charity? It's Shirley MacLaine in the movie. Broadway disappears when the curtain comes down. Nobody knows that Carol Channing created Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello Dolly! It's Streisand and Marilyn Monroe that people remember. He said that's the best thing, and the worst thing about our business, that when it's over, it's gone.'"

McKay still has many "gets" that he's hoping for the future films, as well as a few regrets about missing those that are no longer with us. "I haven't given up on trying to get Streisand, and I would like to have gotten Kim Stanley but she died right before we were supposed to interview. Anthony Quinn and Jason Robards both died the week of the interview. Jason we had to bump the interview 3 times, and once he almost did it, but he was on oxygen and we spoke about doing it in fits and starts, but that was disappointing. I feel though like I've been so fortunate, and I'm so glad that I made the first film almost naively about the theatre, and not about musicals, because I didn't realize what I had. I didn't realize that it was the only film that had ever been made about the essence of theatre, that didn't have to do with just musicals. A lot of play people don't go see musicals, and vice-versa. Some people will say to me that there was a movie about ladies of the theatre, some say it's about great actors, some say it's about great musicals, some about great actors, so everyone sees it as a different movie."

Currently, McKay is working on two new films, "Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age" which will tell the stories of Broadway in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and "Broadway: The Next Generation" which picks up in 1980. "It's interesting with these films, because the first one still has the life, and is still going. I'm glad that I'm making the second one because as much as I lived through the first one, and made lots of friends, the film itself is done. Now, I'm mentally living in the 60s, the 70s and in the early 80s and I'm getting everybody's take on what people thought Broadway was like them. Half the people thought Broadway was dying, but you had talents like Michael Bennett, and A Chorus Line was downtown rehearsing, and Chicago was rehearsing, and the film will compare the two with Chicago supposed to be the big hit, and A Chorus Line being the little show, but A Chorus Line took over, and Chicago dribbled away, and took 20 years to come back. It's fascinating to look at the energy there, and at the same time to be living in today, and doing interviews about the 40s and 50s, and shooting about the 60s and 70s, I'm psychotic sometimes!"

A challenge as the stars get bigger as McKay works on the next two films is keeping the same intimate feel that the first had, as not to spoil the formula. "I feel like one of the charms of my movie is that it's just me and the performer, so it's very intimate. Now, they're getting harder, as they're getting bigger. Some people bring whole entourages, and I try to take them into the bedroom and just shoot them one on one, and the publicists steam in the room next door. You get more out of people that way, and they're crying in about 20 minutes remembering their lives as a struggling actor. Robert Redford gave me an hour and a half, and I think it's because he had never gone down the roads I was taking him. It was supposed to be 15 minutes, but nobody interviews Robert Redford in Hollywood and wants to talk about his struggle in New York. It's redundant to the usual press that they do, but it's all that I wanted to hear about."

Some stars are of course surprised when they come for their interview, and realize that they're in McKay's apartment. "It's easier to get bigger stars, but they are surprised when they come to my apartment like everyone else had. Alec Baldwin came into my apartment and said 'I thought this was in a studio?' I said 'I lied, it's a one bedroom, come on in.' Glenn Close's publicist said that we're filming at The View, we'll be coming from there, so I gave my address, and she said 'There's another studio on the West End? I never knew...' They thought that they had the wrong address when they found it and walked in with hair, make-up publicist, a friend, etc."

One question that Rick is getting continually asked is "What are the themes for the second and third film? The first had such strong themes. Naturally, I couldn't resist asking the same question. "I always told people that I let the first film tell me what it would be, and that's very hard because I'm a control freak. I never planned to make the first film with chapters about Laurette Taylor, Kim Stanley or Gretchen Wilder. I thought obviously it would be Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Richard Rodgers, and the usual suspects, but I realized that the answers were not 'Helen Hayes,' it was different. I want to control it, but I have to constantly remind myself that the first film was not locked in halfway through shooting, you cannot do it. Just in the last month, the themes have been realizing themselves though. Ben Gazzara gave me a great question, he said 'Ricky, this one you've got to go deeper. This time you have to ask everyone what's the price they paid, what was the cost.' People break down in tears when you ask them that. I asked Diahann Carrol that, the first black woman to win a Tony award for best actress. She said that the price was enormous, but that it wasn't about what you paid, it was about what all the people around you that you loved had to pay. Then the tears just started on her face, and she kept wiping them away as she was talking - as a friend, as a mother, as a wife, when you have something to do that you're not doing. Glenn Close talks about walking to the theatre in good weather, seeing in the windows husbands coming home from work, families eating dinner, and instead her kids were coming home from school and she was leaving to go to the theatre. Then, everyone goes out after the show and laughs and all that and then you go home alone to bed, and don't have that time with your family so you think - what do I do this for? Liza Minnelli told me that the first time a maitre de comes up and says 'oh, Mrs. Minnelli, Mr. Minnelli' and you see the look on your boyfriend's face, that you think - we're not going to make it, we're not strong enough. When it happens enough times, you decide that you're never going to get married again. Those that are strong enough to take it, don't want to go there. She said 'is that anyone's fault? I can't complain about losing my privacy - I never had any.'"

This theme of going deeper, also lends itself to the ages that the film is covering. "I'm older making this second thing, and even the people that are the same age long are 'older young.' When they got off the bus, at the same age as Angela Lansbury and Carol Burnett, and all of them that were struggling, they got off the bus at the same age in the 60s and 70s, but they were older, the world was older. A certain innocence was gone from New York. You can imagine, if you've seen A Chorus Line, those kids in A Chorus Line were not the kids at Walgreens. Sheila was a pretty tough cookie, and they would have a quaalude, not an asprin, and you of course have the famous line of 'can the adults smoke.' The world had changed by then, and it's very interesting because I feel like I'm going through some accelerated processes with my film as people tell me about getting off the bus in the 60s and 70s. Take Redford for example, it's all different. He had a publicist when he first started! They're innocent but they're tougher. Today, they have even more - they have managers, and agents and web sites - I know because they all call me! I'm learning that they're revealing themselves, the price that they paid, and how tough it was, and the fight was harder. Broadway's fight was harder as well because the 60s came, and the 'now' generation and hippies and drug culture, a lot of people's work was just dismissed. It's hard to believe that Mame and Hello Dolly! were in the 60s and suddenly Jerry Herman was out of vogue, out of fashion and rock musicals were trying to take over. They didn't succeed very well, but suddenly everybody had to become hip. Company always seemed like an exception, but it was still pretty brave, filled with drugs and wife swapping, and the theory of homosexuality."

Also in this film is something that McKay came under criticism for having a lack of in the first - coverage of the African-American struggle. "There's also a whole African-America section in this one as well because a lot of African-Americans turned me down for the first film, so for this one I've made a concerted effort. It starts in the late 50s with A Raisin in the Sun, and I've got Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Phillip Rose who produced his first Broadway show, Lloyd Richards who ran the Yale Drama Dep't for 35 years, and directed all the August Wilson plays. Lloyd didn't show up for his interview, I sent a car and driver to pick him up, and the driver called me to say he was a no show. I called him, and I said I'd come to him, and I called him over and over, and said I was going to come anyway. I left messages - 'I'm worried, what if you've fallen and no one knows, I'd feel terrible.' But I knew he was home, listening to these messages and shaking his head at me. So I showed up anyway, and went to his son's door, and they said 'I don't know where he is.' I said I hope he's ok, he's not answering, I'm a little worried. He said 'I'm sure he's fine.' And I knew they talked to him! I went down stairs and knocked again, still no answer, so I wrote a note and stuck it between the doors, and as I went back to the cab cursing that I'd wasted a whole day in the pouring the rain, set everything up, didn't need it. The cab driver says is the guy really old that you're looking for? And I said yes, and he said - look! I turn around and I see him taking the note off the door, I ran back and said 'Mr. Richards...' and he said 'Oh, I'm sorry, guess we missed it,' thinking he was off the hook, and I said 'Well I'm here, let's do it' and he said I have to get dressed and everything, I said - perfect, it'll take 30 minutes to set up cameras, and finally convinced him and went in. He told me later that he went and changed, and came out to take a phone call and was watching me set up, and noticed that I changed the backlights for his outfit, and that made him very comfortable. We did a 2 hour interview, and he told me stories that he never told anyone. It was so good, stories about struggles, and rehearsing over the phone, lots of great stuff, and out of it came all these stars Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and it was huge for all these African-American stars."

Continuing on through the third film, the struggle never seems to stop for those who love, and are involved with the theatre. "The second film covers all these changes of these rock musicals coming in and everyone thinks the sky is falling, and then it ends with 42nd Street coming in and Gower Champion dying on opening night and right in the wings is Andrew Lloyd Webber and the 'British Invasion' waiting to come in. Then the third one starts with Michael John Lachuisa, Cherry Jones, and all these people in the early 80s with Times Square as a divested wreck. The cut off between the films, will be the night that Gower Champion died because that's when a lot of people started dying and things started changing again. The third one is then going to be about how heroic the young people are, because it's not cool to be in theatre, it's how the term theatre geek evolved. You were never a theatre geek in the 40s through the 70s, no one said that you were weird or gay to like theatre, theatre was hip and it was smart, and it was mainstream. It wasn't like being a band geek, so in spite of the fact that there were less shows going on, and no work, the people that dedicated themselves to being in the theatre anyway, I think they were heroic."

One thing that's definitely clear, is that McKay's passion burns as strong as ever. "The one thing that's great, is that I'm just as passionate, maybe more so than when I made the first one because of the profound effect that the first film had, and all the feedback, and the letters that I got. All the things that I've heard, makes me feel like I have to keep on doing this. Especially the younger people that 'get it,' and tell me that they've seen the movie 13 times. They want some piece of the past to come back from the first one, and that means so much to me."

Also with the first film behind him, it's easier going after more stars. "Those that have seen it trust me, and those that haven't seen it but have heard of it know that they can trust me. I had a lot of winning over to do for the first one. When I was in the green room for WNET the other day, I couldn't really hear what was going on in the studio, and I couldn't be in there because we had a different star every half hour so I had to be backstage thanking people and couldn't watch the filming. I heard Liz Ashely on the monitors though saying 'There was this buzz...and there was this guy...that was going to the bone marrow of what really made an actor work, because he went to the actors, and we're the only ones that know because we're out there everyday. Everybody was saying that there's this guy, and you've got to talk to him, and that's how he got from one of us to the next, because of the buzz on the street.' Buzz on the street, I had no idea! I have a plan with these ones, but we'll see where they take people, and where they take me."

Finding footage is a challenge for the earlier performances, but that's getting easier - for better or worse, as time moves forward. "We got some great material with Liza, really smart and really clever and we have her talking about going into Chicago in 75 when Gwen Verdon got sick. I asked her what was wrong with Gwen and she said 'Oh, she got a feather or a sequin in her throat' and I thought - what a Broadway malady! It's pretty fascinating, how they did it and I found some footage of it. That's the hard part of the second, finding footage. The hard part of the third is the opposite. No one will gasp at footage, it's documented. Every time somebody farts on stage, someone is there with a camera, and it's being traded the next day."

The second film is half shot, with plans to finish shooting by the summer, and then to either go to TV in March 2007 or to once again shoot for a theatrical release. Then he goes right into the third film, which is filming at the same time, and also includes a topic close to BroadwayWorld-ers hearts. "In the third film we start getting into the Internet, which I'm asking everybody and I'm hearing a lot about. The stuff is really good. They talk about the first preview of shows, and 5 minutes later it's on the Internet, and producers are reading it, and actors. It's very interesting, and things are changing again, and faster than ever!"

We'll be there waiting for both new films with baited breath! In the meantime, Broadway: The Golden Age is now available on DVD, and is airing on PBS all throughout the month of March. Check your local listings, or click here for details.

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From This Author Robert Diamond

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