13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know

November 29th, 2010 § 0 comments

After yesterday’s lengthy survey of fictional films about theatre, I would be remiss in not sharing with you a baker’s dozen documentaries about theatre, most of which are probably even more obscure than some of their fictional counterparts. Unlike the films cited yesterday, which stretch over an almost 80 year period of filmmaking, the oldest of those listed below dates back just 40 years, and the majority are much more recent than that. This likely stems from two key factors: a) the rise of documentary, cinema veritefilmmaking began to proliferate only in the 1960s, and even more recently, b) the advent of high quality digital video cameras, which significantly reduced the expense of shooting documentaries.

Outside of valuable archives like the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Collection at Lincoln Center, the net result of making theatre, namely the show itself, is all too fleeting, even for those that manage sustained runs. But at least there is a slowly growing sub-genre of documentary which tries to capture the reality of how theatre is made, shorn of its romantic, fictional interpretations.

 (2009) James Lecesne and friends from the New York theatre community travel to post-Katrina New Orleans to stage a youth theatre production of Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on This Island. Though there are occasional gaps in the story-telling, there’s no denying the emotional pull of watching an eclectic group of kids, in dire circumstances, pulling together under the guidance of theatre pros to stage a show amid literal chaos and debris.

AUTISM: THE MUSICAL (2007) In yesterday’s roster, I mentioned “theatre as therapy” in connection with the film Weeds, which focused on a prison rehabilitation program. This unfortunately named film, which sounds more like a Parker & Stone project than the earnest documentary that it is, profiles five children who suffer with the increasingly prevalent syndrome as they take part in a Los Angeles program that creates original musicals for those so-affected. Whether therapy or theatre takes precedence here may depend upon your perspective, but like some many documentaries, it’s impossible to address the filmmaking on its own when the merits of the subject are so clear.

BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN AGE (2003) Rick McKay’s look at Broadway history that focuses largely, but not exclusively, on the period from the mid-40s to the late 60s, has at times been criticized for its litany of talking heads, despite some enticing archival footage woven in. But let’s face it, when the people speaking include Bea Arthur, Carol Burnett, Barbara Cook, Hume Cronyn, Jerry Herman, Shirley MacLaine, Patricia Neal, and Stephen Sondheim – to name, I kid you not, only a few out of a cavalcade – it’s time to shut up and just let the heads talk.

(1970) Though there’s debate over what comes before the colon and what comes after when listing this seminal theatrical documentary, there’s no denying that it’s pretty much mandatory viewing for anyone with an interest in musical theatre. What began as a simple look at how a Broadway cast recording is made, taking advantage of the fact that it’s all done in one day, this brief film became a legend due to Elaine Stritch’s epic struggle to record “The Ladies Who Lunch.” What might have been prosaic turns terrifying as the recording session wears on past midnight. It never sets foot inside a theatre, bus this is theatrical truth, and drama, of the first order, and you’ll never hear the cast album the same way again.

EVERY LITTLE STEP (2008) An authorized look at pre-production for the 2006 Broadway revival of the groundbreaking musical A Chorus Line, this film benefits from access to archival material from the original production by virtue of its executive producer, attorney John Breglio, who also oversees the Michael Bennett estate and produced the revival. Like the musical itself, we once again are drawn into the audition process that pulls together a theatrical company, even though in this case they will ultimately be reenacting other people’s stories. This movie is what reality television might be if anyone bothered to look up the definition of reality.

THE LITTLE RED TRUCK (2008) Unknown to me before a Twitter contribution, the film records five stops along the route of the eponymous vehicle owned by the Missoula Children’s Theatre. In each town, the troupe casts local children every Monday and by Saturday has some 60 of them onstage performing in a classic kids’ tale. This is a weekly challenge, and apparently an annual achievement (for 40 years), that would have to be seen to be believed. When I find this film, I’ll have that chance.

LOOKING FOR RICHARD (1996) The Twitterati were split on this one, some loving and some loathing it. Preserving Al Pacino’s ongoing exploration of Shakespeare’sRichard III, it combines scheduled interviews with studio rehearsal scenes featuring the likes of Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin. Depending upon your tastes, it’s either meandering and self-indulgent, or it’s a warts-and-all look at one actor’s efforts to get to the dark heart of a great character.

MOON OVER BROADWAY (1997) Nowadays Broadway productions have their own video units filming the production process, laying the groundwork for the hoped-for PBS hagiography if they triumph. But in the bygone days of the mid-90s, such backstage looks were rare, especially one piloted by two of the finest documentarians working, Chris Hegedus and legendary D.A. Pennebaker (who had apparently been scared away from theatre for a quarter century after making the film of the Company recording session). While Actors Equity rules of the day prevented much footage ofMoon Over Buffalo, the play being produced, from making it onscreen, rehearsal footage and backstage conversations paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Carol Burnett’s return to Broadway after 30 years away, including her impromptu session with the audience one night during previews when tech issues stopped the show.

SHOWBUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY (2007) Dori Berinstein‘s insider view of the 2003-2004 season on Broadway, focusing largely on the musicals TabooCaroline, or ChangeWicked and Avenue Q on their path (or not) to the Tony Awards, grows more fascinating with each passing year, as we gain perspective on the productions and the circumstances surrounding them. With unprecedented access, Berinstein shot more than 120 hours of footage, then whittled it down to a cohesive narrative that revealed itself as the season went on. Like William Goldman’s book The Season, this is destined to be required material for theatre students and historians for years to come, and I say that even though my footage ended up on the cutting room floor (not kidding).

SING FASTER: THE STAGEHANDS’ RING CYCLE (1999) Although set in the opera world, not theatre, I’m letting it in because I’ve never heard of any other documentary, or fiction film for that matter, that looks at stage production from the point of view of the crew, in this case the union team at the San Francisco Opera as they wrangle a complete production of Wagner’s daunting cycle. Winner of a “Filmmaker’s Trophy” at Sundance, its 60 minute running time suggests it was always targeting a TV berth.

STAGEDOOR (2006) Perhaps it should have been called Camp: The True Story to goose its box office prospects, but coming three years after the cult favorite Camp, which fictionalized life at the summer mecca for youthful theatre buffs, this cinema verite visit to the real Stagedoor Manor failed to generate equivalent interest. Perhaps the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, slightly repurposed, is true: when the legend become fact, film the legend – like Campdid.

THESPIANS (2010) A charming, low-key account of very different high school theatre troupes as they prepare to compete in the Educational Theatre Association’s annual national festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. Never released theatrically, it has found a home and following on DVD and cable, and showcases a level of high school theatrical activity that may be all but unknown to those whose schools aren’t participants in International Thespian Society chapters.

THIS SO-CALLED DISASTER (2003) A chronicle of the world premiere of the Sam Shepard play The Late Henry Moss, which debuted on the West Coast with a staggering cast including Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson among many others, including the recently deceased Shepard stalwart James Gammon. This film parts the iron curtain that has largely surrounded the press-shy playwright-director Shepard, whose own film fame came almost entirely as a result of acting in projects by other writers and directors.

Special Bonus Mention: BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL Produced for PBS, Michael Kantor and Lawrence Maslon’s six-part history of the Broadway musical is an expert primer for those just learning about the history of what is said to be one of America’s only two indigenous art forms (the other being jazz). There’s a DVD set of the complete series as well as a lavish, coffee table companion book, and while one can quibble with the occasional omission (and every musical theatre lover is bound to do so; it’s their nature), there’s no denying that this is probably the single most comprehensive filmic look at Broadway from The Black Crook to the present day.

Once again, I don’t pretend that this is in any way a definitive list; I was assisted by an assortment of Twitter friends who were all cited at the end of yesterday’s blog, and they have proven their devotion to theatre by having knowledge that goes beyond the walls of live theatre by exploring movie theatres (undoubtedly art houses and revival houses, not just mainstream multiplexes), as well as what’s available on Netflix, DVD and, once upon a time, VHS and Beta. I thank them for helping me on what proved to be a project much more time-consuming than any blog should be.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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