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About American Theatre Wing

13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know

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 verite filmmaking 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’s Richard 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 of Moon 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 Taboo, Caroline, or Change, Wicked 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 Camp did.

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.

But we are none of us complete indexes, so I invite you to use the comment section to fill out this roster. What has been missed, or what do you think is deserving of even more comment?

Posted on Monday, November 29th, 2010 at 3:23 pm
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28 Responses to “13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know”

  1. Gwydion Suilebhan Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Allow me to add a mention of the inspiring OT: Our Town:


    Dominguez High in Compton, the first play they produced in two decades, and the effect on the gang-ridden community is tremendous.

  2. Esi Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Oh my. Company: the Original Cast Album is classic.
    Children Will Listen–the kid-sized Into the Woods as done by DC schools. Always fascinating to get a glimpse inside the DC school system.

  3. Tweets that mention 13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know -- Topsy.com Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanTheatre Wing, Gwydion Suilebhan. Gwydion Suilebhan said: More fun from @hesherman: 13 theater documentaries you'd really like to know about, plus 1 in the comments from me: http://ow.ly/3hC6b #2amt [...]

  4. David J. Loehr Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    For those who’ve seen the Company documentary, a short film by Chris Elliott from the early ’90s…


  5. Julie Hennrikus Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Great list–I wish that SHOWBUSINESS released an extended DVD. It is such a great conversation.

    And thank you David Loehr for the Chris Elliott video. LOVED IT.

  6. 13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know | The Content Beast Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    [...] Source: American Theatre Wing [...]

  7. KnEzmom Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    What about the six part PBS documentary “Broadway: The American Musical” hosted by Julie Andrews. I guess it’s really not a documentary, but it’s a fabulous lesson in American musical theater history!

  8. Howard Sherman Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Just read about a new documentary on the life of brilliant monologist Spalding Gray, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, directed by Stephen Soderbergh, which opens Dec. 10 and most assuredly deserves a place on this list. Here’s a New York Magazine piece about Gray’s son, who wrote a song for the film:

  9. Esther Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I love a good documentary! I watched Broadway: The American Musical before I made my first trip to Broadway and it was great for giving me a sense of the history and keeping me psyched until the big day finally arrived. I still go back to it.

    I’m also a big fan of Moon Over Broadway. And I recommend listening to the commentary, which was recorded later for the dvd release. It’s pretty fascinating. And Carol Burnett comes across as quite a trouper. Wish I’d seen the play!

  10. Emily Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you for including The Little Red Truck. I love seeing theatre related documentaries and that was one of my favorites – especially since I worked on their shows growing up. Some others that I have enjoyed in past years are:

    Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway

    In The Heights – Chasing Broadway Dreams

    The Sealed Orders of Liv Ullmann (About her directing Streetcar…)

    I feel like I’ve seen a number of great documentaries on theatre, theatre legends or dancers at The Paley Center for Media (full disclosure: I do work there part time). It’s a wonderful resource for documentaries on all topics – but especially theatrical ones!

  11. Esther Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    One other addition to the list: the documentary about Tony Kushner, WRESTLING WITH ANGELS. I saw it on PBS a couple years ago and it’s available on dvd now.

  12. Gift suggestions for the theatre-lover geek on your list — Greenroom Says:
    December 11th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    [...] again) and Vanya on 42nd Street. For theatre documentaries also check out  Howard’s list of 13 Docos That Theatre Lovers Should Know.  It doesn’t include In the Company of Actors which is based on the STC’s production [...]

  13. Tom Dillingham Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    How about Shakespeare Behind Bars, a superb documentary about a prison project that involves inmates in productions of Shakespeare. The play featured in the film is The Tempest. This is a brilliant documentary.

  14. abcderf Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Absolute Wilson is a GREAT documentary also
    much more minor that the ones you have here, but fabulous
    about stage designer Robert Wilson

  15. Zoe Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    two excellent and similarly focused docs are “In The Company of Actors”, directed by Ian Darling, which chronicles the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Hedda Gabler at BAM with Cate Blanchett & Hugo Weaving; and “Theater of War’, about the Public’s production of Mother Courage with Meryl Streep

  16. Steven Patterson Says:
    December 21st, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    You should definitely check out Bill Rose’s documentary THE LOSS OF NAMELESS THINGS about Oakley Hall III, playwright, director, and Artistic Director of the Lexington Conservatory Theatre in upstate NY from 1976 till it migrated to Albany (after Oakley suffered devastating injuries in a mysterious fall from a bridge) to become Capital Repertory. It’s available from Netflix and also (in its entirety) on YouTube.

  17. George Vollano Says:
    December 22nd, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    You missed one notable honorable mention from Showtime: GUYS ’N’ DIVAS: THE BATTLE OF THE HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (which has nothing to do with Disney’s HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, but is a documentary about 3 southeast Indiana high schools and their drama programs).

  18. Jay Anton Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 1:26 am

    How could you leave out “Teaching Shakespeare?”

  19. Andrea Butler Says:
    December 23rd, 2010 at 4:12 am

    I know it’s already been said, but you MUST include “Theatre of War” it’s fantastic! The retelling and reshaping of “Mother Courage and Her Children” is nothing less than epic (no pun intended). Also, “Vanya on 42ed Street” is amazing. This film changed the way I look at Chekhov.

  20. Douglas Denoff Says:
    December 25th, 2010 at 11:30 am

    MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS, directed by Matthew Kallis, follows the Freddie Awards, the annual high school musical theatre competition, which culminates in an awards show which is aired live from the State Theatre in Easton, PA. MVP is a spectacular calling card for our business and emphasizes that theatre, and the Arts in general, are just as important as sports in the development of our children. MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS has just been acquired by Oprah Winfrey as the first of three films for her OWN network launch. If you haven’t seen it i’ll get you a copy ASAP!

  21. Liz Marie Says:
    December 30th, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I have to second the suggestion of “Shakespeare Behind Bars.” I worked with the company and was able to meet a few of the inmates in the documentary. These men are completely genuine and the film portrays them in a blazingly honest light.

  22. An Awful Lot of Plays & Musicals About Theatre Says:
    January 3rd, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    [...] my mind since I first wrote the paired blogs “37 Flicks Theatre Lovers Should Know” and “13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know” in late November. However, the overwhelming response to that effort did inform how I’ve gone [...]

  23. Bethany Hart Says:
    January 11th, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    A third to Shakespeare Behind Bars! A brilliant and sincere look at theater as therapy in an institutionalized setting.

  24. Derek Says:
    February 12th, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Don’t forget about the PBS documentary “Children Will Listen” – following the Washington DC students as they prepare for the Kennedy Center produced “Into the Woods, Jr.” as part of the Sondheim Celebration from 2002.

  25. Jeremiah Says:
    June 25th, 2011 at 9:33 am

    “The Little Red Truck” is on Netflix. Everyone should watch it.

  26. Bridget Says:
    June 25th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for including “The Little Red Truck”! I currently work for that company and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the kids aged 5-18 can learn a whole hour long musical in 5 days.

    The documentary is available from the Missoula Children’s Theatre (www.mctinc.org), Netflix, or from http://www.thelittleredtruck.com

  27. Meredith Bartmon Says:
    June 25th, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Hello Mr. Sherman,

    Meredith Bartmon – Springboard08 Alumni. I did the Little Red Truck tour last summer. It was an amazing experience. I absolutely encourage you to get in contact with Missoula Children’s Theatre and watch the documentary. They are an amazing company.

  28. Jose Says:
    February 5th, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Has anyone mentioned “Theatre of War” – A behind-the-scenes look at The Public Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” that examines the playwright’s life and ideas.

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