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7 films that best capture the magic of live theater

By Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune
Published: September 20, 2021, 6:06am

One thing theater lovers learned in the past 18 months is something they probably already suspected: There’s no virtual/filmed/archival substitute for live shows in a room full of mesmerized strangers.

A couple of theatrical productions have buoyed the spirits of fans this summer, but September will be a tipping point. Local productions are picking up, and Broadway largely gets back to full strength this week. So why not gear up by checking out documentaries that show how theater is made and appreciated?

“I think what happens in the theater is a miracle,” Diana Rigg says in “Broadway: The Golden Age,” and who wants to fight an icon who died not long after appearing in “My Fair Lady” in New York at the age of 81? The lightning-in-a-bottle of theater is impossible to capture on screen, which may be why there are so few good films about the process.

Sadly, the making-of films that exist — “Moon Over Broadway” is a revealing look at the 1995 staging of a comedy with Carol Burnett, and “Follies in Concert” shows nervous stars attempting to learn songs for a staged concert of a Stephen Sondheim landmark musical — are not available to stream.

These movies are, though. They’re great reminders of the miracles that theater fans have in store.

‘Every Little Step’: I could not love “A Chorus Line” more, but you needn’t be familiar with Michael Bennett’s backstage musical — in which dancers audition for a Broadway show that seems to be the one we’re watching — to appreciate this 2008 documentary about tryouts for a revival. Mostly, it spotlights the heart of performers who keep at it, knowing how hard it will be to get a job that hundreds of other talented people also want.

‘OT: Our Town’: If you tried to think of the place least likely to stage Thornton Wilder’s classic drama, it might be a Compton, Calif., school where nobody has presented a play for decades. The students think it’s an awful idea and even the directors doubt themselves but watching the diverse cast spark to the play’s humanity and toughness is glorious. (This 2002 doc is on Kanopy but you can also find it on YouTube.)

‘Original Cast Album: Company’: Even rarer than getting a behind-the-scenes look at a show is seeing the recording of a cast album. A Broadway ensemble and full orchestra, on a non-show day, toiled all night to get the whole thing on tape and director D.A. Pennebaker was on hand for the on-camera breakdown of Elaine Stritch, whose repeated efforts to record “The Ladies Who Lunch” fell flat. (If you stream this 1970 film on the Criterion Channel, don’t miss the note-perfect parody “Original Cast Recording: Co-Op,” in which John Mulaney affectionately skewers Sondheim.)

‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’: Sondheim again, although this 2016 movie is mostly about the cast of his notorious flop “Merrily We Roll Along.” Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito and Tonya Pinkins starred in the show that lasted just two weeks on Broadway and has not been revived since. Director Lonny Price knows the territory; he, too, was in the original cast.

‘Elaine Stritch at Liberty’: There probably could have been an entertaining documentary about any day in the life of the Broadway legend, who also shows up in the less theater-centric “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” This one, from 2004, combines clips from the titular one-woman show with backstage footage that reveals even more about her neuroses, humor and talent.

‘Shakespeare Behind Bars’: As in “OT,” we get to see an unlikely production come together, as inmates at a Kentucky prison warm to William Shakespeare’s centuries-old tragicomedy “The Tempest.” The 2005 film is about art’s ability to reveal our humanity as well as the work that goes into interpreting a classic. (The Rome-set doc “Caesar Must Die” works similar magic with a prison production of “Julius Caesar.”)

‘Broadway: The Golden Age’: Interviews mix with footage of long-ago greats (Kim Stanley, Laurette Taylor) in this 2003 oral history, which you can see for free on YouTube. Gwen Verdon, Frank Langella and Leslie Uggams are among those who share stories about their first glimpses of the marquees of the Great White Way, as well as their adventures on it.