Sometimes perverse, always fascinating, Australian independent filmmaker Mark Dooley’s “Repeat Attenders” explores the personalities of obsessive musical theatergoers. Cutting between half dozen subjects, for a solidly composed, seemlessly engaging 100 minutes, Dooley examines a wide range of musical theatre obsession, from benign fandom to life-shaping phenomenon.
Sally, from north of London, has seen the West End production of "Les Misearbles" 977 times: “It’s an obsession” she unapologetically admits. Joel, formerly an investment banker in Manhattan, saw “Rent” on Broadway 1169 times. His obsession was uniquely compulsive. Approaching his 100th time at the show, he thought it would be nifty to camp out for 100 hours (nearly 4 days) for a ticket. He got “hosed down” by theatre maintenance when they cleaned the sidewalk: “After two days I was getting a little ripe” he recalls. Creepier, still, Joel confesses there were “intimate occasions” with ladies in line in his sleeping “pocket” while camping out.
Dooley investigates the darker side of celebrity obsession. Michael John Falkner recounts how his obsession with teen popstar Debbie Gibson consumed him from her youthful “Electric Youth” video to her young adult role on stage as Belle in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast”. He spent 9 months in prison for stalking after his arrest on Broadway at the Palace Theatre stage door. Eighteen years later he regards his Gibson obsession positively: If wasn't for Gibson, he’d be really crazy, he believes.
Patti and Emily, two, nice American twenty-somethings, go to New York theatre just about every night of the week because theatre converges “what’s happening in my life and whats happening on stage” Emily says for both. Their favorite musical they keep returning to is “Wicked”. Says Patti, “the girl in green is an outsider… it’s the ultimate outsider story” (which as precisely as possible explains the musical’s enduring appeal to teens everywhere). Patti and Emily don’t seem bothered by the cost of their habit. Sally and Joel offer cautionary tales. Sally estimates she’s spent 50, 000 British pounds in transport, lodging and tickets over 25 years to support her “Les Miz” habit. Joel estimates he spent as much as $40,000 in tickets but also calculates the time spent viewing Rent, “Almost 1200 times at 2.5 hours a show is six months of my life” he observes with a pause.
Dooley intercuts these interviews with two fascinating case studies that dig more seeply into musical obsession psychology. Christine Bogle first saw a production of “Cats” in San Diego when she was 12 years old. Thirty years and 105 performances later, she has “the largest collection of “Cats” memorabilia in the world”. She describes her “Cats” thing, as a sort of “sport fan obsession.” “My family thinks I’m a little off” she allows as she models a costume of Jennyanydots from a retired production. “It’s fun to become someone else” but, when she takes the costume off, “I come back to myself. The worst part is that I am me again. ... plain old Christine” It’s not so coincidental that the Jennyanydots costume Christine inhabits is the flapper-style costume underneath Jennyanyydots’s usual appearance; This isn’t garden-variety escapism.
The real star of “Repeat Attenders” is Gudrun Mangel of Reinbach, Germany, whose emotional journey, with a complete arc, coheres Dooley’s film. Gudrun is a devotee of the record-breaking production of “Starlight Express” running for over 25 years in Bochum. (The footage from that production is the highest quality stage film in the documentary.) Gudrun first saw “Starlight Express” when she was 18 and identified immediately as Pearl, the musical’s heroine, even as her father was not only berating her but also thwarting her aspirations in musical theatre. Telling her she was “thin voice(d), fat and piggie” made her feel “ashamed… unworthy”. She is inspired by the Starlight characters: she borrows Rusty’s determination to win the race, and costumed as Pearl, Gudrun sees herself as “beautiful”. (Fittingly in the German production of “Starlight Express” Pearl is not just any observation car, she is a First Class Car.) Gudrun’s training as a dramatic actress fails. She turns to costume-making to keep her dream alive. She endures as a “Starlight Express” groupie, showing up in Pearl costume (acrylic pink wig and all) until she eventually accepts that her “role in life will not be on the stage.” Can Gudrun re-incarnate her musical theatre dream? The answer -and Dooley’s presentation of Gudrun’s story - is “Repeat Attenders” at its most emotionally satisfying.
The common thread that runs through the experience of Gudrun and Dooley’s other subjects is that musical theatre transports the theatergoer into another world, a world that one can’t get to on one’s own, a world in which one “can lose yourself for 2 and half hours” as Christine puts it. Oddly, Dooley’s documentary never questions why musical theatre is the vehicle for those obsessed. It doesn’t matter. We know who we are.
“Repeat Attenders”, originally made for theatrical release, can be streamed worldwide on BroadwayHD.