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Theater Lovers Won't Want To Miss 'Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 2003, a documentary film was released called "Broadway: The Golden Age," presenting an oral history of Broadway through the 1950s. The film's interviewer, writer and director was Rick McKay, who envisioned a sequel or two and kept interviewing Broadway stars, writers, producers and directors for the next chapters. He died in 2018 at age 62 while still at work on a rough cut for his next film. But four of his producers have rescued McKay's work in progress and completed it, presenting it this month as a PBS pledge break "Great Performances" special titled "Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age." It covers the years 1959 through the '80s. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This month's new "Great Performances" pledge special called "Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age" is one to seek out. Local PBS member stations show it at different days and times. It premiered in Philadelphia this past weekend, while New York's WNET, the flagship producing station for "Great Performances," broadcast it this Thursday. Other stations around the country are showing and repeating it at various times in August, and it also will be available for streaming on the PBS Video App. But wherever, whenever and however you watch it, just watch it.

Like McKay's first film, the sequel is full of great stories and punctuated with great music and onstage moments. For Broadway fans, it's pure, undiluted oral history and pure joy. The interviews, filmed and collected by McKay over the years and showcased in this new TV special, include everyone from Robert Redford and Liza Minnelli to Carol Burnett, Glenn Close and Ben Vereen. They talk of big breaks and bad reviews, of onstage memories and backstage troubles and of the differences between acting onstage and in the movies. Here are two performers with very different styles and methods - Frank Langella and Tammy Grimes - interviewed separately on the topic of theater versus film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROADWAY: BEYOND THE GOLDEN AGE")

FRANK LANGELLA: Some people are so arresting on camera, and they're not as arresting in front of an audience. And some people are so powerful in the theater, and they kind of wash away on camera.

TAMMY GRIMES: James Stewart - I was introduced to him. And I said, what is the difference between film acting and stage acting? And Mr. Stewart said, Miss Grimes, the difference is onstage, you use your whole body to express something. In film, it is the photography of the mind.

BIANCULLI: Everyone interviewed for "Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age" takes obvious delight in telling their stories. Clearly, Rick McKay was a fabulous audience of one. When he conducted separate interviews with the stars of the musical "Ain't Misbehavin" based on the songs and story of Fats Waller, they broke into song - not just one of them; all of them - Ken Page, Armelia McQueen, Andre De Shields, and starting things off with so much energy, Charlayne Woodard.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROADWAY: BEYOND THE GOLDEN AGE")

CHARLAYNE WOODARD: I loved it. And, you know, we just came out just very easy. We didn't hit like bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. We didn't have to do that. You know, most musicals started like that. The opening number - da-da-dun-da-da (ph) - we didn't have to do that.

ARMELIA MCQUEEN: And then - (singing) I know for certain the one I love. I'm through with flirting. It's you that I'm thinking of. Ain't misbehaving. I'm saving my love for you. Like Jack Horner in the corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Yeah, kisses are worth waiting for. Believe me.

ANDRE DE SHIELDS: (Singing) I don't stay out late. I don't care to go. I'm home about 8. Just me and my neighbor's radio. I can't afford one. Ain't misbehaving. I'm saving my love for you.

I think that's it.

BIANCULLI: Even when people are talking instead of singing, it's riveting. Jonathan Groff hosts and provides a fresh and very personal introduction to the TV special. Glenn Close tells of the tragic story behind her big break as an understudy. Liza Minnelli tells a story I'd never heard before of when she bailed out "Chicago" when that stage musical was first opening by substituting for ailing star Gwen Verdon as an unbilled replacement for more than a month. And the story that serves as this documentary's climax, of the time Michael Bennett united, the former current and touring casts of "A Chorus Line" for one special performance, is presented so dramatically it almost makes you feel like you were there.

There are some obvious things missing from this overview of Broadway from 1959 through the '80s - most mentions of Stephen Sondheim, for one, though I'm guessing he and his works, which include the groundbreaking "Company" and "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" from those years, are being saved for yet another sequel, which, so far as I'm concerned, can't arrive soon enough. So many Broadway musicals were built around the plot line that the show must go on, embracing both the archive and the spirit of Rick McKay, that should be the case with these Broadway documentaries as well.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "Broadway: Beyond The Golden Age," this month's PBS pledge break special.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "CHICAGO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You can like the life you're living. You can live the life you like. You can even marry Harry but mess around with Ike. And that's good, isn't it? Grand, isn't it? Great, isn't it? Swell, isn't it? Fun, isn't it? But nothing stays. In 50 years or so, it's going to change, you know. But, oh, it's heaven nowadays.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, writer Eyal Press talks about people working in jobs most of us would never want to do because they're difficult and punishing and in some way morally compromised. He interviewed prison mental health workers and correctional officers, oil rig workers, slaughterhouse employees and military drone operators. His new book is "Dirty Work." I hope you can join us.

Last week, it was announced that Tony Bennett, now 95 years old, has retired from live performing and that his recent live performances at Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga will be his last. On Friday, we'll listen back to interviews with Tony Bennett from our archive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST A LUCKY SO AND SO")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) As I walk down the street, seems everyone I meet gives me a friendly hello. I guess I'm just a lucky so-and-so. The birds in every tree are all so neighborly. They sing wherever I go. I guess I'm just a lucky so-and-so. Now, if you should ask me the amount in my bank account, oh, I'd have to admit I'm slipping. But that don't worry me - confidentially, I've got a dream that's pippin. And when the day is through, each night I hurry to a home where love waits I know. I guess I'm just a lucky so-and-so.

DAVIES: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.