Sunday in a Doc with George

Looking for a way to avoid the family during the holidays? Don't look at me like that – I know some of you are. Here are some excellent documentaries about the musical theatre that will be way more fun than arguing with Uncle Bert over Thanksgiving dinner about whether President Obama was born in Kenya and killed his gay lover in college...

Show Business – Filmed in 2004, this is a really smart, interesting documentary following four extremely varied Broadway musicals, Caroline or Change, Taboo, Avenue Q, and Wicked. We get glimpses into the artistic process as well as the business side, from rehearsals through to the Tony Awards. It's probably the best documentary I've seen about New York commercial musical theatre.

Original Cast Album–Company – This 1970 documentary was supposed to the first in a series, but there were never any others. It's a really cool, inside look at the process of recording the original cast album for Stephen Sondheim's conceptual masterpiece Company. It's the closest we'll ever get to seeing those original performances. If I had a time machine, it would be set for opening night of Company. To really understand what that history-changing experience was like would be so amazing. (My second stop in the time machine would be opening night of Follies.) This documentary has gained legendary status over the years, probably due in no small part to the legendary status of Company, and to Elaine Stritch's epic battle to record "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Not many people ever saw it, but there's a brilliant parody of the Company documentary, comedian Chris Elliott's Housewives: The Making of the Cast Album, in which Elliott, in Elaine Stritch drag, has a breakdown recording his big number, mirroring Stritch's difficulties with "The Ladies Who Lunch." This was one of a series of short films Elliott made for Late Night with David Letterman. Luckily for you, I was once an obsessive recorder of all things musical theatre, and so I have the Housewives mockumentary on video and I uploaded it to New Line's YouTube channel a while back.

Follies In Concert – In 1985, Sondheim and Friends decided they wanted a full recording of the Follies score, since the original cast album had left so much out. And that led to the idea of doing a concert performance and recording it live. Half of this film is a documentary about putting this concert together in a very short time frame, and the other half is highlights from the performance. Back when this film was first released, this was the closest we had gotten to experiencing the original. Now we have home movies of the original production on YouTube, but this is still a wonderful glimpse backstage and in the rehearsal hall with a truly all-star cast, including Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Liz Callaway, Howard McGillin, Liliane Montevecchi, Phyllis Newman, Mandy Patinkin, Lee Remick, and Elaine Stritch. My one complaint is Mandy's manic, masturbatory, and self-indulgent reinterpretation of "Buddy's Blues." Ack.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy – This is a really good documentary, with interesting interviews, lots of performance footage, and an intelligent discussion of why so many Broadway artists were Jewish, and why the "Broadway sound" came out of Jewish music. If you're interested in the evolution of the art form, you'll want to watch this.

Hair: Let the Sun Shine In – This is a penetrating, intelligent look at this brilliant, ground-breaking, still profoundly relevant 60s concept musical about war, politics, love, drugs, sex, and our place in the world. The film includes interviews with the show's creators, producers, original cast members, and much more. (Full disclosure, I'm in the film a few times to talk about the show's historical, cultural, and political context, and they based the film loosely on my book Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair.) It's the only documentary I've ever seen that digs into just one musical, from various points of view. I've discovered it's an amazing way to introduce a cast of actors to Hair before they start work on it.

Broadway: The American Musical – This 2004 documentary series is good but flawed. I have no idea why they spend an entire episode on the Ziegfeld Follies (which has only minimal connection to the evolution of the musical), but leave out a lot of important, interesting, form-changing musicals. For someone who knows nothing about Broadway musicals, this is probably a good introduction, and it's got a lot of cool interviews and archival film footage.

Broadway: The Golden Age – This is another 2004 documentary, and though I really don't much like it, I thought I should mention it here, explain why I don't like it, and you can decide whether you want to see it. On the upside, there are some nice interviews with big names like Gwen Verdon, Carol Channing, Jerry Orbach, and others, and a little bit of period performance footage (mostly home movies), but it's hard for me to get through this film because the central premise of the film (unstated till the end) is that the 1950s and 60s were the pinnacle of American theatre and that where we are now sucks. This documentary maker says that Hair was the beginning of Broadway's downfall, so you can imagine just how full of shit I think he is.

If this were a film just of theatre memories (and much of it is), with a different title, that'd be different, but there's a value judgment attached here, an insular mindset that's telling the rest of us we'll never get it. If you do watch this, just don't watch the last fifteen minutes – titled "What Happened?" It'll just make you mad. Kitty Carlisle Hart declares that the American theatre was once great, "and it's gone." Yeah right, Kitty, the American theatre is gone. Shut up.

The actors interviewed in this film talk about the thrill of seeing Oklahoma! and Carousel, but surely their thrill couldn't have been greater than my own at seeing Ragtime, Rent, Noise/Funk, Bat Boy, Urinetown, A New Brain, Hedwig, The Scottsboro Boys, The Blue Flower, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... If the measure of a Golden Age is the thrill of lots of great, ground-breaking works of art, today's musical theatre has been kicking some golden ass since the mid-1990s.

Every Little Step – This is a really cool documentary about two Chorus Lines. We follow auditions for the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line, and we also get to explore the original 1975 production, including lots of performance footage and interviews with many of the people who created this masterpiece. A Chorus Line holds a very special place in my heart, as I suspect it does for many musical theatre artists, and this is the best exploration of this show I've ever seen.

Try to Remember: The Fantasticks – This is one of my favorite documentaries, taking a long, loving look at the longest running musical in the world, including some performance footage, tons of interviews with cast members past and present, including people like F. Murray Abraham. I'll admit that I often get choked up watching this film, and I'm not exactly sure why (okay, it also happens with Every Little Step). Maybe it's about the chance to step back in time to really see and understand these intensely American, genre-shattering masterworks, that I love and connect to so deeply.

Heart and Soul: The Music of Frank Loesser – This is a really great 2007 documentary about the composer-lyricist of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls, Greenwillow, Where's Charley, and The Most Happy Fella, as well as a bunch of hit pop songs. This guy truly is one of the most original, most exciting writers our art form has had, and it's a real pleasure to explore his work and career.

Words and Music by Jerry Herman – This 2008 documentary explores the life and work of the songwriter who, even more than Rodgers & Hammerstein I think, embodies the first Golden Age of the American Musical, even though he really hit his stride at the very end of that period, with Hello, Dolly! in 1964. Herman was one of the very best at writing strong, old-school musical comedy scores (Mame, The Grand Tour, Mack & Mabel, La Cage aux Folles). I think he was every bit the equal of Cole Porter, and Herman arguably moved the craft even further along. This film is a really fun stroll through his career and his shows.

And as a side note – singer and historian Michael Feinstein did a three-episode documentary series called Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, and the third episode is about Broadway, including very cool footage of Angela Lansbury watching for the first time home movies of her performances in Mame and Gypsy. Pretty amazing. I bought the series just for that third episode, but you can buy just the third disc by itself on Amazon.

You're the Top: The Cole Porter Story – George M. Cohan invented musical comedy, but Cole Porter perfected it. Amazing, beautiful, rowdy, naughty, sophisticated musical comedy songs came pouring out of Porter like a fountain. And though he wrote some lesser scores, he also wrote Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. People often talk about how amazing Irving Berlin was, but for my money he couldn't touch Porter.

Guys 'n Divas: Battle of the High School Musicals – This 2009 documentary is one of my favorites. It follows three high schools doing musicals in southern Indiana. One school is doing Zombie Prom, one school is doing Starmites, and one school is doing an original old-school operetta written by the drama teacher and music teacher, about a nineteenth-century Hawaiian princess. This film totally captures the experience of doing musicals in high school, and the friendly (and sometimes not-so) rivalry between the schools. It's so easy to see the Hawaiian show go off the tracks early on, when it becomes too much about the teacher and not enough about the kids. For someone who lived his life in the drama department in high school, this film is really fun to watch, but unfortunately it's never been released commercially. But it does show up on cable from time to time, so set an auto-record on your DVR...

Beyond these documentaries, there are also some other great resources on video, like the many Broadway musical performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the three volumes of Broadway's Lost Treasures, performances from the Tony Awards. Also, a lot of film musicals on DVD have behind-the-scenes featurettes.

And of course, lots of us musical theatre freaks have videos recorded from television of Charlie Rose's many interviews with Broadway artists (some of these are available on Amazon), A&E specials, PBS specials, and yes, I even have some musical theatre-related programs recorded from C-Span. Now that some companies are releasing musical theatre videos from the early days of television, I hope they start releasing some of these terrific documentaries and programs that have never gotten commercial releases, so more people can see them.

I did some lectures a few years ago to some college musical theatre majors about the history of the American musical theatre, and I was surprised to find that they knew virtually nothing about the history and evolution of their art form (one of the reasons I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band). The better we understand where we came from, the better our work will be moving forward. After all, how can you get Urinetown right (and many productions don't) unless you understand Threepenny Opera? How can you work on a neo musical comedy like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Bukowsical if you don't understand the old-school musical comedy of Cole Porter and Jerry Herman?

It's an amazing time to study the musical theatre right now because there are more resources available today than ever before – books, videos (including New Line's YouTube History of Musical Theatre which a lot of teachers are using now), audio recordings, and so much more. So dive in and enjoy!

Long Live the Musical!