Updated: Apr 24, 2020
I've been obsessed with the best of the worst of cinema for a long while, even devoting an entire screening series to it. Over the past while, I've seen many films considered to be the worst of all time, and thus, it's always surprising when I find a new, virtually unknown one that ranks as an all-timer.
About a month ago, a friend of mine mentioned a film called HEADIN' FOR BROADWAY that he had been wanting to see since 1980. The reason he had never had the chance to see the film is due to the fact that it was never released theatrically in New York City and was never released on any form of home media. After a quick Google search, I found the film on YouTube, and we immediately viewed it. What we witnessed was one of the cinema's great atrocities that was so amateurish, so shockingly inept that we couldn't help but double over with laughter.
HEADIN' FOR BROADWAY was co-written, produced, scored, and directed by Joseph Brooks, best known for his Oscar-winning song, "You Light Up My Life," from the film of the same name that he wrote, produced, scored, and directed (he had also achieved success writing jingles). After the horrendous YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE, Brooks made IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN, which was even worse than LIGHT. Somehow, Brooks got another shot at making a feature film, and HEADIN' FOR BROADWAY was the result.
This 1980 catastrophe, about a group of young actors who show up in New York City for a Broadway musical audition, is a blatant rip-off of A CHORUS LINE without any of that show's nuance, wit, or craft. HEADIN' fails on every single level, down to its editing - entire sequences don't flow due to Brooks' insistence on cutting from one storyline to another seemingly randomly.
One of the characters in the film is an overeager NYU film student filming the auditions, played by Lonny Price, making his film debut. Since that film, Price has gone on to great success both in live and filmed entertainment. For his work, he has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and been nominated for a Tony Award. On Broadway, he appeared in the original cast of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and directed the 2017 revival of SUNSET BOULEVARD and A CLASS ACT (he also starred and co-wrote the book, earning him a Tony nomination), among many others. His deeply moving, critically-acclaimed 2016 documentary, BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD HAVE HAPPENED, detailed the process of getting MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG to the stage and the impact its failure had on all involved.
I wanted to speak to Lonny about his experience working on the film, and so, the following is the result. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Handler: Had you seen any of Joe Brooks' work before?
Lonny Price: I had heard "You Light Up My Life" of course but had not seen the film. I didn't know him at all. The person that cast the movie was Joanna Merlin, the great Joanna Merlin, who cast all of Hal Prince's shows from COMPANY to SWEENEY TODD through MERRILY [WE ROLL ALONG], and maybe even beyond. Joanna was the casting director, and she's the one who called me in for it, and I think was very wary of Joe, and she didn't oversell it, let's say that. She was just like, "I'm doing this film, I think there's a part in it for you, I'm not sure about it." Everybody kind of went into it [thinking], "This is a little odd."
When I was looking through it to speak to you, the pianist in the auditions is a man named Larry Hochman who is an enormously successful orchestrator now. And Mitzi Hamilton who's the inspiration for "Tits and Ass" in A CHORUS LINE is in a lot of the shots, she's a dancer in it. It's probably filled with a lot of great chorus dancers. There's another woman who was playing Sheila in A CHORUS LINE at the time. There's a shot of her wearing sunglasses about to sign up for the auditions next to Rex Smith. A lot of the Broadway-ish kind of people were in it and around it.
I didn't know Joe, I just knew the song, that's all I knew.
JH: And you had not seen any of his previous films like YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE or IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN?
LP: No, I had definitely not. IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN - is that between YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE and [HEADIN' FOR BROADWAY]?
LP: I didn't know that. Who's in that one? Is it another studio movie?
JH: It is. Columbia did YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE with Brooks, and they gave him a follow-up which was IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN. He cast himself in IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN against Shelley Hack. The film was a big bomb when released, critically slammed and commercially unsuccessful, and so it was very surprising to me to find out that he made another film, which was HEADIN' FOR BROADWAY. Obviously it was a different studio, but I was surprised that after the terrible YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE and IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN, he was allowed to make another film.
LP: He's very tenacious. He was very confident, eager, my way or the highway, didn't
know what he didn't know and didn't care. He wanted things the way he wanted them, very sort of megalomaniacal. He died tragically, isn't that right?
LP: Can you tell me the story?
JH: He was, I believe, indicted for numerous rapes, and then before he could be tried, he committed suicide.
LP: He was a disturbed man. He was certainly on the spectrum, but there was something wrong with him, and I bet today he would've been medicated, and he might've been alright. He was aggressive and he certainly had OCD, he [found it] very hard to concentrate, he was scattered, he was wired. He was a mixed bag of a lot of unfortunate attributes or personality things, I'm sure undiagnosed, but I think today he would've gotten some help and been less crazy.
JH: As an actor making his film debut, what was it like working with Joe Brooks as a director? Did you feel supported by him?
LP: The part was very simple - it was a really aggressive young film student. I knew who he was, I knew those kinds of people, and I might've been one of them, I don't know, so he loved what I was doing. Oddly enough, he wanted to spin that character off into another movie, and I had had meetings with him about doing another film if you can believe it, knowing nothing would ever happen. But I was very flattered, and he was very into me and that character. Maybe it reminded him of him.
In terms of direction, he just let me do whatever I wanted, and he seemed very pleased with it. I don't remember him talking to us that much at all. It was a lot of improv. A lot of it was me just babbling, which he liked. I don't know if other people had that experience, but he was very free with me, and said, "That's great, keep doing that."
JH: What was the atmosphere like on set? Would you consider this a positive experience?
LP: It was chaotic. They were behind all the time, you never knew quite what he was going to shoot next. He was a loose cannon, and there was a lot of complaining, "What is this?", and in the way that he didn't really know what he was doing as a film director, it wasn't like that was his attitude and the way he conducted himself. We knew this was not what a real movie was supposed to be like. It seemed chaotic and disorganized, and everybody was just trying to do his bidding, which, as I remember it, was erratic and chaotic. Everybody was just trying to give him what he wanted, and he was the director and producer and very cocksure of himself, and people responded in that way.
JH: When did you first see the film?
LP: I have no idea. Maybe there was a screening. I have no recollection of when I saw it. I think I saw it at a movie theater on a screen somewhere, but I have no idea when that was.
JH: One thing that's interesting about you is that you've had this incredible career both in film and theater, particularly theatre, and thus, I'm curious to know about whether the film's depiction of the audition process is accurate.
Not very. Some of it, Gene Foote [the film's choreographer who stars as the choreographer] giving a combination and whittling it down and all of that was very true and fine, but there's sort of a sense where everybody comes to New York for one audition, and they're all staying at the same hotel, and you get one chance at this, so there's only one show that's happening in a year. And then what, Ralph, the guy who doesn't get it, the choreographer teaches him a number and says, "Come back in two weeks" - none of that would ever happen. That was all a fantasy of Joe's.
A CHORUS LINE was a huge hit. He took a bunch of movie tropes and clichés and used A CHORUS LINE as his template, and it was a poor man's CHORUS LINE for sure. People were nice. Rex Smith was lovely, and Vivien Reed was lovely, Terri Treas, Paul [Carafotes] - they were all hoping this would be a big deal for them. This was a huge deal to lead in a film for those four, and they worked hard and put their trust in [Joe Brooks], as they had to, and did the best they could.
JH: Was any footage shot then cut? The reason I ask is because there were some plot strands that were unresolved, and Vivien Reed's character is completely undeveloped despite the fact that her character is given special attention at the beginning.
LP: I have no idea. All of my stuff that I shot was in, I remember thinking that when I saw the film. I don't know about anybody else.
JH: What kind of impact did this film have on your career?
LP: Positively none. No one knew it existed. Did it get released in movie theaters? I guess it must have.
JH: I know it didn't get released in NYC, but I do know that it got released in Washington, D.C. because there's a fabulous Washington Post article where they discussed how the film was basically dumped into theaters without any fanfare. I couldn't find much about the film's release.
LP: It's sort of a thing that didn't exist, except for YouTube, it wouldn't I'm assuming. No one would know what it was. That's where you found it, YouTube?
JH: Yes, my friend grew up in NYC and had been wanting to see it since 1980 but never had the chance to since it wasn't released there. So, I Googled the film and found it on YouTube. We immediately watched it and were mesmerized by it.
LP: It's quite something. To answer your question, it had no impact on anything. No one saw it, no one knew it existed, so I would say it was a zero-sum game.
JH: Does anybody ever ask you about this experience now, does this film have any impact on your life, or is this the first you've thought of it in the past while? LP: Oh I think every ten years or something, maybe someone will say, "Oh I saw that movie," as a kind of taunting, but no, I never think about it. When you make a movie, it's two or three weeks out of your life decades ago, unlike doing a piece of theatre which really does feel like it has impact because of time since whatever you're doing is a couple of months, at least two or three months. This was probably two or three weeks of filling up a day here, a day there, and that was it. It had no impact or resonance and certainly not in the world. I'm always surprised when people know about it because it's nowhere. I don't even know where they got that awful print on YouTube.
JH: My guess is that it came from TV. After doing some digging, I found that the film was never even released on VHS, but it did air on HBO in the '80s.
LP: I wonder if Fox even has it, I wonder if the negative exists anywhere.
JH: That's funny you say that because I was just imagining the other day what would happen if they unearthed this film in the vault somewhere and gave it a look. I think that would be funny.
LP: It's certainly unique, there's no question about it. I can't imagine if they watched it that they'd get through it. It's hard to watch.