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Cable Television's "Broadway Beat" Is Tops in Tapes

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The bad news: Due to union restrictions, the vast majority of Broadway shows open and close without being professionally filmed or taped in their entirety. The good news: One enterprising soul, Bradshaw Smith, is doing his best--in the face of major obstacles, including draconian legal constraints--to preserve large chunks of live, professional theatre on videotape, along with pertinent interviews, features, and behind-the-scenes documentary footage.

Smith is executive producer and principal videographer of "Broadway Beat," a cable TV program broadcast every other Monday night/Tuesday morning (at 1:00 am) over the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. In that capacity, he has developed the fervor of a true archivist.

"We do 40 to 44 shows a year on MNN," Smith says. "We're trying to document Broadway history, so we go to everything we're invited to. If we're not invited, we call and get ourselves invited. And we gather as much material as we can; I make a copy of every tape that comes through here, and add it to our library."

The "we" of "Broadway Beat" includes on-camera interviewers Richard Ridge, Sidney Myer, and Russell Bouthiller, as well as co-writer and director Edgar LaMance, Jr. Myer considers the program "a public service, because it puts the spotlight on theatre, cabaret, and nightlife in New York in an in-depth way that no one else can do; the major networks are so limited in terms of time."

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The "Broadway Beat" archives are "truly one of a kind," according to Myer. "Since Bradshaw is now the unofficial videographer of Broadway, he has stuff that nobody else has. People who were pretty much anonymous when he taped them continue to gain prominence, and Bradshaw often turns out to be the only person with footage on them. There's no way you can put a price on those tapes."

Strict rules limit "BB" to taping no more than 30 minutes of any union show, only three minutes of which can be shown on the program. Smith scrupulously observes these limitations--even though no one really polices him.

"They did in the beginning," he says. "Someone is assigned to watch us--usually the press agent--but they're not always right around our necks. I think they trust us by now, except at Carnegie Hall; someone's over my shoulder every second there."

Time limitations on footage don't apply to non-union shows such as cabarets and benefits. BB tapes all the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising events (Gypsy of the Year, the Easter Bonnet Competition, Broadway Bares), for example, and copies are sold to benefit BC/EFA.

For the Record

A zealous advocate of documentation, Smith is disconcerted by the fact that "the only complete tapes of Broadway shows are those made for the Lincoln Center Library; and what good are they? You can't get near them." The Lincoln Center collection is accessible only for research purposes, and its tapes are of less-than-professional quality.

Though Smith began recording cabaret acts in 1985, the first Broadway show he got was "Grand Hotel" a few years later. "I wish I had started sooner," he says with a sigh. "I had to learn through the cabaret world how to get into taping theatre."

"We try to show the entire process of how a show is put together," says Richie Ridge. "We incorporate a lot of rehearsal footage, because it doesn't count as part of the three minutes of the actual production we're allowed to broadcast."

"Big' was the first Broadway show to be documented by Smith and company from start to finish, over a period of a year and a half. "We got in on the first meeting between Mike Ockrent, Susan Stroman, and [Richard] Maltby and [David] Shire," he says, "and we covered the initial reading of the score and script. Now we're doing the same with 'Dream' and 'Titanic.' In fact, the 'Titanic' people called me in just last week. The set designer, John Napier, displayed models of the set changing from scene to scene. I've got it all on tape for when we need it, even though the show doesn't open till next March."

Comprehensive coverage is the goal of the "Broadway Beat"-nicks. "What's great about our 'Chicago' program," Ridge enthused, "is that we'd done sit-down interviews in the studio with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera of the original production, so we were able to include them in our coverage of the revival." Additionaly, the program boasts footage of Jerry Orbach (also from the original cast) doing "All I Care About is Love" on the 1976 Tony Awards, as well as Verdon and Rivera reprising "Nowadays" for the 1984 Tonys.

On the Street

One of the most popular features of "Broadway Beat" is "Matinee Mavens," a segment in which Russell Bouthiller interviews theatre enthusiasts on the street--with an emphasis on the so-called blue haired ladies. Says Smith, "We send our tapes to London, and 'Matinee Mavens' is their favorite segment. People from all over the country call to ask, 'How can we get 'Broadway Beat?' But I just can't afford to keep sending out tapes. If I had funding, I could do it."

Smith constantly fields requests from various TV stations for footage, which he usually provides at cost. He says a major network would charge about $1,000 for 30 seconds of similar material, if they have it at all. Smith makes his living by taping cabaret shows, stand-up performances, and such for money; "Broadway Beat" is what he does for love.

That motivation is reflected in the show's consistent level of excellence and, hence, its increased popularity. "BB" 's 1996-97 season began with a terrific half-hour documentary tribute to the late cabaret singer Nancy LaMott. (Smith says he has 15 hours of LaMott footage on tape, which will form the basis for a PBS documentary in the spring.) The season debut also included features on the revitalization of 42nd Street and the making of Howard Crabtree's "When Pigs Fly."

The "Broadway Beat" guys are not thrilled with their show's new, late-night time slot. This, of course, is the kind of scheduling for which VCRs were made. "Manhattan Neighborhood Network's policy is to give the best slots to new shows," Smith explained, "so they keep bumping the older shows around. It has nothing to do with quality. That's why you see a lot of shows with people sitting around in their living rooms, drinking beer and talking to the camera about nothing. We've been with MNN for six years, and I doubt they've ever seen 'Broadway Beat.' When we call them up, they say: 'Who?' I don't think they even watch the tapes--they just take them and play them over the network."

Schmoozing with the Stars

Lots of famous theatre people have passed through the 'BB' studio, which doubles as Smith's apartment. All are asked to sign a wall of honor, in addition to taping their thoughts and reminiscences for posterity.

"It's a thrill to be able to interview someone like Kim Hunter, who's been through so much," says Richie Ridge. "She starred in films and on Broadway, was blacklisted, worked with Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams."

The "BB" staff claim that even their most potentially difficult interviews have gone quite well. "Usually, once they realize the interviewer knows what he's talking about, they relax and soften up," says Ed LaMance. "Arthur Laurents told us he found God through the 'Nick and Nora' experience--that he came away from it with a renewed spirituality. He said he was thankful to be rid of all those despicable people."

"Our only really difficult interview was with Blossom Dearie," Smith remembers. "She kept giving one word answers: 'Yes,' 'no,' 'yes,' 'no.' Not forthcoming at all. Myra Carter, from 'Three Tall Women,' was a wonderful character. She needed coffee so badly she couldn't wait till it was finished brewing; I had to take the pot away and hold a cup under the drip for her. Once she sat for the interview, she was blistery, but great fun. She said just about everything except 'That f---ing Edward Albee.' "

In one of the most rewarding interviews Smith can recall, "Julie Harris broke down and cried when she spoke about working with Ethel Waters and Brandon de Wilde in 'The Member of the Wedding.' Richie had to take her by the hand during the interview. It was fabulous."

Golden moments like that keep the "BB" boys going on a tight budget; nearly all the money Smith earns goes back into the business. "I think, someday, this footage will be worth a lot," he says. "We might have to wait a long time to be compensated for our work. In the meantime, we love

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