“I’m through with the business…it’s no fun anymore…” says dejected theater producer Leonard Soloway near the end of the novel and eventful documentary film, Leonard Soloway’s Broadway. Mr. Soloway’s melancholy was due to the early closing of his latest production. Will it be his last?
Soloway is now 91-years-old and has worked on over a 100 productions since the 1940’s as a house manager, a general manager and as a producer. Leonard Soloway’s Broadway contains plentiful reminiscences, archival material, well-shot contemporary footage and integral interviews, but it offers more than just a standard chronicle. In addition to showcasing their jovially complex subject’s occasionally profane dry wit and entrancing low-key presence, producer-director Jeff Wolk and writer Margaret Murphy’s concept combines informativeness with suspense for an absorbing portrait simulating the sense of it playing out in real time.
The film’s spine is Soloway seeing a regional production of the musical revue Maurice Hines Tappin’ Thru Life in 2015 and deciding to move it to New York. Following fundraising, machinations and creative clashes, it opens Off-Broadway to good reviews yet doesn’t catch on. There are illustrative clips from the show demonstrating its promise and interactions with the ebullient Maurice Hines.
Mr. Wolk and Ms. Murphy embellish this device with other requisite biographical conventions. Campbell Scott’s narration is authoritative though passionate. Interviewees John Slattery, Tovah Feldshuh, Olympia Dukakis, Elizabeth Ashley, Debbie Gravitte, colleague Emmanuel “Manny” Azenberg, and Shubert executives Philip J. Smith and Robert E. Wankel, all offer sparkling commentary. Chatting at Joe Allen’s restaurant with Joe Allen, Soloway recounts what went wrong with some of his shows such as Rockabye Hamlet, whose posters are displayed there with those of other flops. There are visits to Sardi’s where his caricature hangs, to Soloway’s office and his Manhattan and East Hampton residences that are filled with homoerotic artworks and theatrical memorabilia, including his two Tony Awards.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a Russian-Jewish immigrant businessman father and a Jewish-American mother, he painted scenery at the local theater and studied acting at Carnegie Tech where he clashed with his teachers before dropping out. After arriving in New York City in 1947 at the age of 19, he was hired as an assistant stage manager for Brecht’s Galileo starring Charles Laughton. One thing led to another during Broadway’s Golden Age.
Jason Robards showing up drunk for a performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten and his ex-wife Lauren Bacall racing over to the theater in curlers and a fur coat over a slip to sober him up is among the choice gossipy bits. “I did adore her” Soloway says of the notoriously difficult Bacall. There are snappy anecdotes about Elaine Stritch, Marlene Dietrich, Carol Channing, Liberace and Whoopi Goldberg. Legendary tyrant Jerome Robbins was put in his place by Soloway during Jerome Robbins’ Broadway’s long and rough rehearsal period. Hal Holbrook’ s Mark Twain Tonight! was the first of many notable shows he successfully nurtured, a few others were The Shadow Box, Gross Indecency and Our Town starring Paul Newman.
Following an early brief marriage to actress Betty Gillette, Soloway lived openly as a gay man which was rare for that time and this is treated with directness. A table in his living room has a collection of framed photographs of his past boyfriends, several of whom it is implied died of AIDS. One of the most affective moments of the entertaining Leonard Soloway’s Broadway is the brief wholesome image of the aged Soloway smiling and winking at a handsome young Sardi’s waiter.
Leonard Soloway’s Broadway
Available on Amazon Prime Video, On Digital and On Demand
Running time: one hour and 22 minutes