By Sophie Van Antwerp
A young waiter from Sardi’s looks behind the camera, smiling. The next shot–and the last of the film–is of Leonard Soloway winking at him. He then looks at the camera, locking eyes with the viewer. He gives a large, goofy grin and then the film ends, just as quickly as it began. Leonard Soloway’s Broadway showcases the life and career of a man who made Broadway what it is today. Made in 2019 and directed by Jeff Wolk, Soloway was 90 years old when it premiered.
I began to watch the documentary on OutFest now, a site dedicated to showcasing queer films. It was mostly made up of bite-sized chunks of short films that were put into thoughtful curated collections. Unfortunately, due to a technical error, I had to finish watching on Amazon Prime Video. OutFest now has the potential of a great cultural impact. Having queer films accessible makes visibility even easier.
The film is broken into sections. If this were a paper, the writers would get full credit on their subheadings. The titles of these sections really only seemed to be relevant to what is taking place in the present, but when one looks closer, it relates in a deeper way. For example, one section is aptly named ‘Tech Week’ and it shows what a usual tech week during a broadway show would be: frustrating and aggravating. We see Leonard fight with the director of Tappin’ Thru Life, the play he is trying to produce. His company manager, Judith Dresner, explains that “it’s not been a good day, and tempers flare.” But later, Leonard also talks about how it was to work with difficult people. He was a charmer, many people said, but he can’t get everyone.
The cinematography is what one would expect from a documentary. There are still photos, plenty of b-roll, and clips for the ‘show, don’t tell’ bit. A joke from Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show was featured, along with bits from the Oscar Wilde-inspired play Gross Indecency. Archival footage of plays performed decades ago to only a few hours ago are shown, each one that Leonard produced and/or managed. Of course, with his repertoire of over 100 plays and musicals, they had plenty to work with. It was all effective, the words Leonard or the narrator say giving an apt explanation of why they decided to put what they did on screen.
What there was a noticeable lack of, however, was of the plays and musicals themselves. We get to see very little of past shows that Leonard has done, and what we do see is mostly black and white photos. We hear little from the people Leonard speaks about – although in many cases it couldn’t be helped. Though they cannot interview the friends that have passed, Leonard tells stories about them, bringing them to life so vividly, one would think they would appear in the next shot. However, with those that we do get to hear speak, we got their side of the story instead of Leonard’s. And though it is always good to hear another side of the story, it made it seem like there was animosity coming from Leonard in some cases.
The soundtrack is once again what one might expect from a documentary like this one. It’s quiet, only coming in when there’s a break in speech. It swells at the end, stirring up emotions. And, of course, we have the narrator, Campbell Scott. He tells the story swiftly, only coming in when exposition is necessary. He is a constant throughout the film, with only one instance where he stays silent and the viewer must read the screen for themselves. In doing this–making it a forced action rather than passively listening–the weight of the problem really hits. It becomes a swift punch to the gut, with white words on a black background. It’s a morose message, with quiet piano behind it.
As it is, I’m a sucker for a good documentary. And I’m definitely a sucker for this one. Leonard is sweet and kind and so absolutely charming I could be swooning. The doc is fast-paced, but it tells so much. It can be jumbled sometimes – the headings of some sections make very little sense – but overall it is just fun. Leonard would name drop someone that seemed untouchable and say that he and so-and-so ‘became friendly’. Carol Channing, Whoopi Goldberg, even President Kennedy went to one of his shows (although in that case it wasn’t Kennedy he got friendly with). It leaves the view with with a warm, fuzzy feeling because we get to see someone who is happy and successful live out their dream. And at 90, no less.
What’s also great about the film is it’s not about Leonard’s sexuality. It’s brought up a few times; for example, his friend Manny Azenberg says, “He was the first genuinely shameless gay man i ever met.” Leonard tells a little about his past boyfriends near the end, and he tells a funny story about how he came to realize he was gay. But that’s it. The documentary doesn’t make the story about his sexuality. It’s never the reason they are speaking. It’s simply there. Leonard is just a producer who happens to be gay. What’s important is not that he is queer, but that we have representation in the simplest way possible – that we are seen. As Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs write in Between the Sheets: Queer, Lesbian, and Gay Documentary, “to see and be seen is not only a matter of visual representation but also of social acceptance” (1).
What makes this all the more interesting is that the documentary subtly shows just how important the theater really is. There are so many people who live and breathe the stage and the lights and many of those people are part of the LGBT+ community. It’s a stereotype that if you’re gay, you like the theater, but really theater has been a way to prove that queerness exists. “[H]istorians of theater and drama have described an increasingly out professional class of theater practitioners,” says Robin Bernstein. “[This class] has forged a body of work that depicts queer people in increasingly honest and positive ways” (Bernstein 1).
Leonard Soloway’s Broadway is intelligent, emotional, and an absolute riot. Leonard’s charm oozes out of the screen and, by the end of it, we can’t help but feel like we have known him all our lives. For an hour and twenty-two minutes, we feel as if we are right there next to him. It shows not only that anyone can make it big, but that gay kids can grow old doing something they love. And through the ups and downs of his nearly 150 shows in his 70-year career, Leonard Soloway really shows us just who’s Broadway it is.
Leonard Soloway passed away on December 11, 2021, at the age of 93.
Bernstein, Robin, ed. Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater. University of Michigan Press, 2006.
Holmlund, Chris, and Cynthia Fuchs. Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, and Gay Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Leonard Soloway’s Broadway. Directed by Jeff Wolk, produced by Jeff Wolk, 2019.
One thought on “From Cleveland to Broadway: a Review of ‘Leonard Soloway’s Broadway’”
Such a wonderful and honest review. I really enjoyed reading your review on the documentary. Your review definitely made me want to go ahead and watch the film. It was great to find that the documentary didn’t center around his sexuality. I think often times that’s all the media focuses on when it comes to gay people. So that was very refreshing to read.
When I was a kid, theater was my life and so reading the part where you say that theater proves “that queerness exists” was really beautiful 🙂 Great piece.
LikeLiked by 1 person