Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The documentary pioneer D.A. Pennebaker died on August 1, at age 94. He directed or co-directed and/or photographed some landmarks of the form, including Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), and The War Room (1993). I interviewed Pennebaker and his longtime creative partner and wife Chris Hegedus during their publicity tour for a movie—which one, I’m not sure. Nor was I able to find the interview in my files. But I remember their generous manner and the way they talked about how the music footage they’d taken in the Sixties had kept them flush in later years.
So here’s an appreciation of a lesser-known but diverting backstage documentary, a review from the Herald in June 1998. Moon Over Broadway, co-directed by Pennebaker and Hegedus, is about a troubled production, though it turns into a tribute to the professionalism of Carol Burnett.
Moon Over Broadway
If your interest in theater was whetted by last Sunday’s Tony awards, check out a new documentary, Moon Over Broadway, for more on the subject. This movie goes behind the scenes with a vengeance.
This film comes from the experienced and award-winning team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose The War Room captured the mania of spin doctors in the 1992 presidential campaign. Here, they follow the development of a Broadway comedy, Moon Over Buffalo, through its rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, and eventual New York opening. The result is easily as fascinating—and sometimes as excruciating—as The War Room.
In 1995, Pennebaker and Hegedus began filming the rehearsals of the new play, an old-fashioned door-slamming farce. They were initially attracted to the project by the presence of Carol Burnett, who would be returning to the Broadway boards after 30 years of TV and movies.
Soon this turns into a wonderfully tense backstage drama. Playwright Ken Ludwig worries aloud that Burnett is wrong for the role. Burnett can’t seem to keep her lines straight; coming from television, she’s used to paraphrasing dialogue and making it funny.
The actors have their own ideas about the lines. Director Tom Moore then firmly says that the play will not be improvised, which prompts leading man Philip Bosco to launch into a lofty wall-rattling speech about the value of actors and their input.
In Boston, the play gets lukewarm reviews and less-than-sellout houses. The producers, two million dollars into the process, begin to wring their hands. The excerpts of the show that we hear are full of painful one-liners, and Ludwig admits that he’s stronger on structure than on jokes. When the idea of paying a joke-writer to add gags comes up, someone suggests a particular Long Island dentist who apparently has a flair for punchlines.
One of the key dramas going on in the film is the way Moore and Ludwig think Carol Burnett is not up to the demands of the stage. Ludwig bemoans the pact with the devil that led to her hiring. You need a star to sell tickets! Burnett herself seems uncertain at times during the rehearsals, and the navigating of egos becomes a main source of tension behind the scenes, especially for the unflappable Moore.
The star has the last laugh. She’s clearly funnier than her material, for one thing. Then, when a piece of machinery breaks during a New York preview, director Moore asks Burnett to vamp with the audience for 20 minutes during the delay. With great aplomb and razor-sharp timing, Burnett goes out and knocks ’em dead. After this display of star power, you sense the tables turning just a bit. When the play finally does open (to mixed reviews), the audiences are clearly coming to see Carol Burnett.
Pennebaker and Hegedus shot 80 hours of film for this 90-minute documentary. There isn’t a slack minute in the movie. Moon Over Broadway is an instructive and absolutely entertaining looks at how things in the theater really happen.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.