Friday March 6, 1998
You have to wonder how the Carol Burnett-Philip Bosco 1995 Broadway hit "Moon Over Buffalo" could be more captivating than Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's "Moon Over Broadway," which documents the course of the play's production from first rehearsal to opening night. Written by comparative newcomer Ken Ludwig and directed by boyish-looking Broadway veteran Tom Moore, "Moon Over Buffalo" is a traditional backstage farce in which Burnett and Bosco are cast as "the second-rate Lunts." They are performing "Private Lives" and "Cyrano de Bergerac" in repertory in Buffalo--the year is 1953--when they learn the electrifying news that Frank Capra is coming to see them for their possible casting in his upcoming film, "The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel" (an unlikely Capra project, but no matter).
Of course, they're thrown into a tizzy, especially Burnett. The generous glimpses of "Moon Over Buffalo" in rehearsal and out of town in Boston's glorious Beaux Arts Colonial Theater suggest that it is a pretty funny show, a sturdy vehicle for its stars, and that audiences laugh a lot.
"Moon Over Broadway" takes us backstage in the assembling of a major stage production starring one of America's most beloved performers and one of the theater's--and film's--most distinguished character actors. Even allowing for the fact that Hegedus and Pennebaker's celebrated fly-on-the-wall technique could not possibly have caught every feeling and nuance experienced by cast and crew in bringing the show alive, "Moon Over Broadway" is in fact very comforting. It suggests that professionalism, civility and sophistication are alive and well in the top rungs of the American theater.
Burnett, who looks wonderful with or without makeup, is just as you would hope she would be: unpretentious, thoughtful and a good sport. (When the curtain wouldn't go up during the play's final dress rehearsal, Burnett came out and did 10 minutes of stand-up, to the delight of the audience.) There's less of Bosco, who early on makes a point of hoping Moore and Ludwig will want input from the actors and worries that he's being expected to play at the top throughout.
As it turns out, however, the star of the documentary is in fact Ludwig, a stocky, 40-ish man who has to come up with all those rewrites and, as one of the producers remarks, has the most at stake as the least-established of the production's principals. He's the one who needs the most reassurance, the most constructive of criticism; fortunately, Moore comes across as a man who knows both what he wants and how to be a master diplomat. There's also a lot of helpful input from the play's urbane producers, Rocco Landesman and Elizabeth Williams.
As is their style, Hegedus and Pennebaker, who made the Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary "The War Room," about the Clinton campaign for the presidency, don't ask questions--and they didn't let anybody involved see their film until it was finished. You're left to wonder how Ludwig reacted to learning that the producers seriously considered bringing in a joke-smith--a Long Island dentist--to get more laughs, and how Burnett felt when she heard Ludwig remark of star casting that "that's the pact you make with the devil in the modern theater."
The filmmakers' approach prevents them from asking Ludwig to explain who his ideal casting would be and how she would be different from Burnett. (You get the feeling that he might like a bit of underplaying, but Burnett gives the broad strokes her fans expect and she is swiftly validated.)
In any event, by and large Burnett and Bosco got the critical raves rather than Ludwig. There seems little doubt that Burnett, in her return to Broadway after a 30-year absence, was responsible for "Moon Over Buffalo's" nine-month run.
Moon Over Broadway, 1998. Unrated. An Artistic License presentation of Pennebaker Hegedus Films/McEttinger Films production in association with Bravo Cable. Directors-editors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Producers Wendy Ettinger and Frazer Pennebaker. Cinematographers Pennebaker, Nick Doob, James Desmond. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.