Mamie Parris in ‘CATS’ on Broadway. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Bobby McGuire
We’ve all seen them, the audience member who shows up to the theater decked-out in the merchandise for the show you’re about to watch. We’ve heard them brag on rush ticket lines about the number of performances they’ve seen. We notice that they refer to cast members by their first names. And we pray that if we get seated next to them, that they won’t sing along loudly with the show.
But who are these Broadway superfans, and what is the motivation behind their obsession? Equal parts love letter to fans and a cautionary tale about obsession, Repeat Attenders, a documentary that explores obsessive musical theater fandom (now available for streaming on Broadway HD) attempts to answer this to varying degrees of sensitivity and respect.
In his debut effort as a feature film documentarian, director Mark Dooley offers a never-before-seen look into the lives of these live-experience hoarders. His results are mixed, however. Exploring mainly the lives of middle-aged obsessive fans, we delve into the experiences of two sympathetic fans, and two who are less so.
In the latter category, there’s Sally, who arrives in London’s Paddington Station to see her 977th performance of Les Misérables. Featured the least in the film, we see Sally hover at the stage door as the actors enter the theatre, then emotionlessly comment to one actor that she noticed he recently missed a performance. She also brags about having never once cried at the famed tearjerker mega musical.
Similarly, there’s Joel, a former banking executive who boasts that he saw the original Broadway production of Rent 1,169 times, which amounts to half a year (or 525,600 minutes divided by two) of his life in the Nederlander Theater. The creepy factor hits eleven when he recounts a story about getting intimate with another rush ticket patron while waiting overnight on a makeshift mattress set up in front of the theatre. He was eventually barred from the attending performances in the last weeks of the show’s run.
On the flip side, Dooley offers a kinder portrait of San Diego native Christine and her obsession with the musical Cats. A true superfan, Christine proudly boasts about owning the largest cache of original Cats costumes and memorabilia — a collection that she values at over $20,000.
The breakout star of Dooley’s film is middle-aged Starlight Express superfan Gudrun of Rheinbach, Germany. Denied a chance to attend a musical theater conservatory by her love-withholding parents, Gudrun found inspiration and comfort in the “I think I can, I think I can” musical. And although it’s almost comical to see the lengths to which she takes her fandom (she dresses up as one of the musical’s train cars and performs songs from the show with teenagers at a child’s party), there is something refreshingly and innocent about watching her find self-acceptance.
Regrettably, the film takes a wrong turn away from fandom by including an interview with convicted Debbie Gibson stalker Michael John Falkner, who was arrested outside of Broadway’s Palace Theater during the “Electric Youth”’ singer’s stint as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. It seems unfair of Dooley to lump Falkner, who asserts that his time on Rikers Island was “the best social experience of my life” in with the other admittedly odd but otherwise harmless fans.
In the end, is Dooley able to provide universal answers to the root of super fandom? No. However, one of the best insights in the film comes from a pair of 30-something women sitting at a banquet at Sardi’s, who remark about fans looking down on superfans. “Why do we make fun of each other?” she asks. “Maybe it’s because we don’t understand.” So, why rain on each other’s parade? Sit back and enjoy the show… again and again.
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.