Grade: B+

Aficionados of theatre lore will swoon over “Broadway: The Golden Age,” an extraordinary compilation of recollections by actors, composers, directors and writers who were part of the New York theatrical scene in the period from the 1930s through the 1960s. The documentary is a labor of love by Rick McKay, an Indianan who came to the Big Apple in 1981 with remembrances of the Great White Way from his youth, gleaned from newspaper accounts and original cast albums. What he found was a place with an entirely different ambiance, with declining numbers of both plays and musicals and the biggest hits coming from England. McKay decided to arm himself with a video camera and, through interviews, try to discover whether the street’s golden age was a myth or a lost reality.

It would take a list as long as a review merely to name all the people whose recollections are included in the final picture, from Edie Adams, Bea Arthur and Elizabeth Ashley through Barbara Cook and Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Hume Cronyn and Julie Harris and Uta Hagen and Martin Landau and Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach and Harold Prince and John Raitt and Stephen Sondheim and Maureen Stapleton to Gwen Verdon and Eli Wallach (to name but some of the more famous). The interviews aren’t given in full one after another, but sliced and diced to into segments where recollections on a single subject blend into and inform one another. The participants are for the most part wonderfully open and enthusiastic, and the anecdotes they relate often delightfully wry. Since many of the older interviewees have since died, McKay has done a remarkable service in preserving their memories. He’s also included some great found footage of Broadway’s theatres and local watering holes of the period, as well as rare “home movies” showing brief, usually silent moments of actual rehearsals and performances from the period.

In the latter portion of the film, moreover, he hones in on one figure, now little-known outside a very insular community, who represented for many of the interviewees the summit of Broadway acting, the actress whose naturalism inspired them in their own development as artists. That was Laurette Taylor, whose performance in “The Glass Menagerie” many cite in almost reverential tones. Taylor’s artistry exists today mostly in memory, since, though she made a few pictures during the silent era, she did none after the advent of sound. Probably McKay’s greatest coup is to have located the screen test she made for David O. Selznick, which shows her to have been so realistic that she hardly seems to be acting at all, and suggests that by failing to cast her, the producer robbed us of some magnificent performances. And though McKay doesn’t neglect other masterful moments–Marlon Brando’s overwhelming turn in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example (for which he uses an audio clip of his stage work against Jessica Tandy)–he goes on to suggest that Taylor led directly to Broadway’s two other singular actresses, Kim Stanley (whose work on film, while more substantial than Taylor’s, is still relatively modest) and Geraldine Page (whose cinema work, thankfully, is more substantial).

It’s difficult to convey how exhilarating all of this is, but also how poignant. The nostalgia here is bittersweet, since along with the celebration of the “Golden Age” there also comes the realization that it’s over. And especially in its treatment of Taylor, the film captures the essentially ephemeral nature of the theatrical art since the birth of drama in ancient Greece–its amazing immediacy and power, combined with its fragile, transitory nature. It’s the film’s success in expressing that combination that endows it with such a mixture of joy and regret. This is a picture that devotees of the American theatre will cherish.