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06/15/2004
Broadway: The Golden Age

Reviewed by Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel Kenner

The movie "Broadway: The Golden Age" is one of those terrible shows, so common these days, about an area that stings and denigrates its subjects. It consists of questions from the writer answered serially by 80 former greats of the theater like Angela Lansbury, Ben Gazzara, Roger Goulet, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Stephen Sondheim.

About 95% is hateful stuff about how much better the musicals were in the old days, how much better 42nd Street was, how much better the actors were, how great the prices were, how wonderful it was to eat in diners and Sardi's, how fine to exchange gossip in the drugstores, how much better the traveling was, how much more camaraderie there was between the actors, and how their friends who provided food when they were broke.

Occasionally the author's heavy hand doesn't show, e.g., when an actor tells how when the comedians got together they never laughed at each other's jokes but simply said "funny." Or when Carol Burnett recalls how she and her three roommates got together to buy a dress for 20 bucks and each would wear it at tryouts but had to iron it afterward.

One can contrast "Broadway" with The Glory of Their Times, by Larry Ritter, who loved his subject and left you feeling exhilarated about baseball and bygone days. Larry asked good questions, shut up and let the players talk, and finally edited everything into a seamless tapestry of American life. No wonder all the people at his funeral said it was the best baseball book of all time and the founding cause of sabermetrics, the study of baseball statistics.

Urquhart and Motteux, translators of the complete works of Rabelais, say in their introduction: "If you laugh all round him, tumble him, roll him about, deal him with a smack, and drop a tear on him, own his likeness to you and yours to your neighbor, spare him as little as you shun, pity him as much as you expose, it is a spirit of humor that is moving you." Everything one sees as comedy today is divides by this distinction. It's the difference between Cervantes and Moliere, between Patrick O'Brian and Forster.

One show that does get it right is playing off Broadway right now. "Forbidden Broadway" is a well-staged musical spoof of most of today's big stage shows. In some two dozen skits, four actors make fun of subjects like the British invasion of Broadway, (e.g., the new all-WASP production of "Fiddler on the Roof") and the possible post-"Hairspray" career path of cross-dresser Harvey Fierstein. "Forbidden Broadway" covers much the same ground as the griping of "Broadway: The Golden Age," but does so in a way that lets the audience laugh rather than making them feel bad for not having been around in the `30s and `40s when even the burgers were perfect. 

 

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