Feature: The Guardian
10 Jun 2020 15.00 AEST
Think you love musicals? Meet the fan who has seen Les Mis 977 times.
What makes Wicked and Starlight Express so addictive? A new documentary, Repeat Attenders, chronicles the reasons superfans return to see their favourites
You might guess that the Australian film-maker Mark Dooley likes musical theatre from his production company’s name being a pun on Hello, Dolly!, the 1964 Broadway hit. Hello Dooley has just produced Repeat Attenders, a tremendous documentary about “super fans” of stage musicals who, after really liking a show, begin to follow it religiously – literally so, going once a week and more often during the holidays.
Zoomed from Melbourne, Dooley explains that he had the idea in London, over coffee with a friend who was working on the West End production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. She mentioned individuals who spent almost as much time at the theatre as the cast. Intrigued, he “asked around the business, and the stories came flooding in”.
Interviewees include a man who saw 1,169 of the 5,123 New York performances of Jonathan Larson’s Rent; and a British woman who we meet en route to her 977th viewing of Les Misérables in London.
This is Dooley’s first documentary feature after a TV career that includes the Australian version of Gogglebox. He admits to having seen Wicked “about seven times in various productions. But now I don’t feel I ever need to see it again. I’m done: there are too many moments where I think: I’m a bit bored now.”
For the record, three times is the most that I have ever seen a production of the same musical, the most recent being Dominic Cooke’s Follies and Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler on the Roof. That felt enough for one show; a thought that, as Repeat Attenders explores, never occurs to the most determined returners.
One reason that the phenomenon involves musicals is that their often very long runs make obsession possible. Were you to become obsessed with a new play at the Royal Court, you would struggle to see it more than a few times before the run ended. “Absolutely,” agrees Dooley. “Though even within musical theatre, it’s only a few productions. There aren’t really Sondheim repeat attenders because the shows don’t run long enough.”
Another important factor, though, is that the super fans Dooley meets have had various struggles in their lives, and most of the shows that go on longest – Wicked, Cats, Starlight Express – are about the triumphant validation of the outsider. “From the first time they saw these shows,” the director says, “the super fans made that connection.” It would be easy to imagine another film on the same subject that took the attitude, to paraphrase the name of a well-known musical, “Jesus Christ! Superfans!” But Repeat Attenders is generally non-judgmental, leaving audiences to have their own view on the healthiness of the obsession. “I thought of having a narrator,” Dooley says, “but I really didn’t want to force an opinion on people. I just wanted to be as observational as possible, using their voices. I was actually very judgy when I started making the film – thinking it was going to be hilarious meeting these freaks – but, spending time with them on and off camera, I came to the conclusion that there are underlying reasons why we do everything, and so that became the story.”
While most of the case studies suggest that repeat attending, although it may arise from lack of self-esteem or life structure, isn’t harming anyone, Dooley includes one example where someone did threaten harm – an American man jailed for stalking a Broadway actress after being arrested at her stage door. “It is a really shocking moment in the film,” the director admits. “It’s not typical of repeat attenders, but it can and does happen. It was a difficult decision, because I don’t want people to think badly of this subject. But, making a documentary, it has to be balanced.”
All culture is now altered by the context of Covid-19, but the meaning of this film has changed more than most. I found it impossible to watch without thinking about what these people – for whom the apparent indestructibility of Wicked or Les Misérables was a fixed point of their lives – lost when the theatres closed. “Absolutely,” Dooley agrees. “The people who go to these shows as a bit of escapism, or happiness, or self-care, they can’t now get it. Watching it now, post Covid-19, there is a different element to the film. Even seeing people in a theatre is strange!.”
There is a sub-group of hit musicals – led by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Grey Gardens – that are based on TV documentaries. So Repeat Attenders – the Musical is surely waiting to be added to the group? Dooley’s smile illuminates the Zoom screen. “You know, I was seriously thinking about that today. It has to happen at some point. This subject matter lends itself to a musical so well.” If that happens, I might not want to see it a thousand times, but certainly once; and I would happily see the documentary a second time.
Mark Lawson - The Guardian