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. We'll get at least 10 local productions, while Broadway gets back to full strength and we welcome the return of splashy tours, with "Frozen" starting at the Orpheum Theatre on Sept. 30. It's all right around the corner, so why not gear up by checking out documentaries that show how theater is made and appreciated?
I'm not talking about filmed stage productions like the "Hamilton" that debuted on Disney Plus or the "Come From Away" that starts this week on Apple TV. Those are decent records of worthy shows but they straddle media uncomfortably — the cameras get right up in the grills of actors who gauged their performances for people hundreds of feet away, while effects that might be mesmerizing in a darkened theater can fall flat here. (I believed actors sitting in two rows of wooden chairs were on an airplane when I saw "Come From Away" in New York. On my TV? Not so much.)
"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.
I'd love to recommend a polished documentary about the workings of a regional theater such as the Guthrie, for instance, but I don't think it exists. Making a play involves thousands of decisions, which sounds like the recipe for a dandy nonfiction film, but I can't think of many productions that have allowed a filmmaker to eavesdrop on the process, either. (A dishy substitute is James Lapine's new book, "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Wrote 'Sunday in the Park With George,' " a frank look at the rigors of creating stage art.)
Sadly, the making-of films that exist — "Moon Over Broadway" is a revealing look at the 1995 staging of a comedy with Carol Burnett (I saw the show and can tell you the doc is better), and "Follies in Concert" shows nervous stars attempting to learn songs for a staged concert of a 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.
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.
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.)
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.)
Sondheim again, although this 2016 movie is mostly about the cast of his notorious flop "Merrily We Roll Along" (staged by the Guthrie in 2001). 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.
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.
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.)
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.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib