Anyone connected with musicals has encountered the obsessive “superfans” who return to a  show they love time after time. Mark Dooley was so fascinated by the phenomenon that he made a documentary called Repeat Attenders, now available on demand. It could be a while before the superfans can get back to doing what they love best as theatres remain shuttered due to COVID-19 restrictions. A planned Sydney production of the musical Who’s Your Baghdaddy? (Or How I Started the Iraq War), is one of the many casualties. But rather than cancel or postpone, the producers are presenting a live streamed version. After streaming 10 plays, viewed over 12 million times by people around the world, NT at Home has announced its final five productions, including Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, staged with musicians integrated into the dramatic action.

Online musical: Who’s Your Baghdaddy?
The poster for Who's Your Baghdaddy? (Or How I Started the Iraq War)

With theatres closed as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, theatre folk have had to express their creativity online. Audiences have been able to watch the streaming of previously recorded plays and musicals, and a slew of new cabaret and variety-style concerts – some performed live, some pre-recorded, some presented from the performers’ homes and some from special COVID-safe performance venues.

Now comes a short season of a musical, originally scheduled to be performed on stage in Sydney, but instead reimagined for an online presentation. It will be live streamed, with the performers and technical crew all operating from one large house with a central computer. The question is, with so many people now having to do work meetings on Zoom, will audiences want to watch a musical that uses a Zoom-style format?

The show is Who’s Your Baghdaddy? (Or How I Started the Iraq War), a satirical musical comedy, inspired by a true story, with music and book by Marshall Paillet (Triassic Parq), and lyrics and book by A.D. Penedo. It was produced Off-Off Broadway in 2005 and Off-Broadway in 2017.

Australian producers Keith Muir, Sam Ducker and Steven Kreamer had planned to stage the Australian premiere in September through their company Curveball Creative. But with a live production unlikely because of restrictions due to the coronavirus, they decided to produce the show online instead.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? is set at a support meeting for a group of people who believe that their actions led to the start of the Iraq War. They had recruited an Iraqi defector, codenamed “Curveball” who fed them intelligence on Iraqi mobile weapons laboratories – unfortunately the intelligence was fabricated.

As happened in real life, the false intelligence was used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his 2003 speech to the UN Security Council to justify the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

“It’s a cool piece,” says Kreamer, who is also the show’s Musical Director. “The script is really strong and the soundtrack is pretty amazing. It’s fascinating because it is about these mid-level spies and the mishandling of information. It’s about truth and reliability and credibility. We are now living in this era of post-truth and fact checks, [with someone like] Trump who spreads misinformation. The Iraq War was 2001. We are 20 years down the track and the same stuff is still happening in America – and it has a global impact.”

Kreamer says that the show lends itself to a Zoom-type format because “the narrative construct is that they are at a support group… And the way that therapy sessions and support group meetings and AA meetings are being done at the moment [because of COVID-19] is over Zoom so it doesn’t feel like we are trying to bend it to this format.”

The production is directed by Neil Gooding, and features a strong cast including Blake Erickson, Phillip Lowe, Laura Murphy, Matthew Predny, Adam Rennie, Katrina Retallick, Justin Smith and Troy Sussman.

The production will be performed in a large seven-bedroom house. Each actor will be given a different room with their own camera, microphone and monitor. The cables will all go to a central computer from which the show will be streamed, avoiding the lag in sound that happens when performers are using their own internet connections at home.

The show was originally scored for live piano and backing tracks, so Kreamer will be in the house too. “If there is dialogue I can underscore it with the piano and then when we kick into a number, there will be drums and guitar all programmed in,” he says.

Musically, the score is “eclectic” and “exciting”, says Kreamer, with references to different 90s styles from the Beastie Boys to rap and R&B.

How it all goes, time will tell. “It is an interesting time because things are opening up again, but we don’t know when theatres are going to open, and more importantly we don’t know when people are going to start engaging with theatre again,” says Kreamer.

“It’s still a daunting thought for some people to go into a hundred-seat theatre, crammed in with people, so it might not be until next year, so it’s like ‘what do we do for the next six months?’ In some ways it’s nice to be at the forefront of that and be a trailblazer and say ‘this is what we can do’. And if people learn from our mistakes then even better.”

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? (Or How I Started the Iraq War) will be performed online for five performances from June 24 – 28, with tickets costing $22.    

National Theatre at Home: the last six weeks
Lucian Msamati as Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photograph © Marc Brenner

The National Theatre has announced the final five productions that it will stream as part of its National Theatre at Home initiative. They are Small Island, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Blancs, The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus. Each production will be available on demand for a week.

National Theatre at Home was launched in April to bring theatre into people’s homes during the COVID-19 pandemic while venues were closed. Since then the National has streamed 10 plays, which have received over 12 million views on YouTube. It has been a wonderful opportunity for theatre fans around the world to see productions such as One Man, Two Guv’nors, Frankenstein and Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus for free. The initiative will wind up in July.

Small Island is the epic stage version of Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel. Filmed live during its sold-out run in the Olivier Theatre in 2019, the play moves through the Second World War and up to 1948. It tells the complicated history between Jamaica and Britain through three intricately connected stories. Directed by Rufus Norris, the production features a company of 40 actors. It streams for a week from Thursday June 18 at 7pm BST or Friday June 19 at 4am AEST.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream stars Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) as Titania in Shakespeare’s most famous romantic comedy. The immersive production was captured live from the Bridge Theatre in London. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the theatre becomes a dream-like forest with flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels, in which the roving audience follows the action on foot. The Dream streams from Thursday June 25 at 7pm BST or Friday June 26 at 4am AEST.

Les Blancs is the final play by Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun). As an African country, on the brink of civil war, prepares to drive out its colonial present and claim an independent future, Tshembe, who has returned home from England for his father’s funeral, finds himself in the eye of the storm. The production, which was directed by Yaël Farber, was filmed by the National Theatre in 2016. Les Blancs streams from Thursday July 2 at 7pm BST or Friday July 3 at 4am AEST.

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea. Photograph © Richard Hubert Smith

The Deep Blue Sea stars Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer, one of contemporary drama’s greatest female roles in Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece, set in a flat in West London in 1952. When Hester is found by her neighbours having attempted suicide, the story of her tempestuous affair with a former RAF pilot and the breakdown of her marriage to High Court judge emerges. Sydney Theatre Company staged the play in February 2020, receiving a mixed response. By all accounts, Carrie Cracknell’s impassioned 2016 production for the National Theatre – in which McCrory was hailed for her indelible, shining performance – was far more successful and emotionally devastating. The Deep Blue Sea streams from Thursday July 9 at 7pm BST or Friday July 10 at 4am AEST.

The National Theatre at Home winds up with Peter Shaffer’s iconic play Amadeus about Salieri’s battle with the young Mozart. Amadeus premiered at the National in 1979 when it won numerous Olivier and Tony Awards. It was then adapted in the Academy Award-winning 1984 film directed by Miloš Forman with F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as the potty-mouthed Mozart.

This National Theatre at Home production was recorded in 2016. Directed by Michael Longhurst, it stars Lucian Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart. Longhurst turns the play into “an epic piece of music-theatre” as The Guardian put it, with 16 actors, six singers and the 20-strong Southbank Sinfonia. What’s more, Longhurst fully integrates the musicians and the singers into the dramatic action. Amadeus streams from Thursday July 16 at 7pm BST or Friday July 17 at 4am AEST.

Repeat Attenders
Superfan Gudrun Mangel at Starlight Express. Photograph courtesy of Hello Dooley Productions

When I worked in the box office at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in the early 1980s, Reg Livermore’s Firing Squad had a season there. I very quickly encountered some of his most fanatical fans who came to see the show around once a week, wanted to sit in the front row, and waited for him at the stage door afterwards. He knew them all by name, as they showed the same zealous commitment to every show he was in.

Anyone who has worked in musicals will know of “superfans” who are so obsessed with a show that they will return time after time. They will wait at the stage door so the cast quickly get to know them, and purchase pretty much everything going from the merchandise stand. Some will ensure they see every understudy perform. Wicked is known for its legions of superfans, but plenty of other musicals such as Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have devoted followers. Social media has further fanned the flames, with superfans posting pictures of themselves with cast members.

Australian film-maker Mark Dooley heard about the phenomenon from a friend who was working on the West End production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and was so intrigued he set about making a feature-length documentary called Repeat Attenders.

Filmed over a six-year period, Dooley – whose company Hello Dooley is a fun pun on Hello, Dolly! – journeys from Melbourne (where he is based) to Brisbane, Broadway, London’s West End and Bochum in Germany as he delves into the psychology of the extreme superfans.

“They reveal their lives. They reveal their obsessions. Now it’s their time to be in the spotlight,” says the documentary website.

We meet Sally, who at the time of filming had seen Les Misérables in the West End 977 times, Christine who has the world’s largest collection of Cats memorabilia in her garage and has seen the show over 100 times, and Gudrun who has seen Starlight Express 41 times. There’s also a man who saw 1,169 of the 5,123 New York performances of Rent.

More creepily, there is an interview with Michael Falkner who was arrested in 1998 for stalking former pop star Debbie Gibson while she was starring in the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast. Dooley decided not to use a narrator and not to pass judgement but to leave it to viewers to make their own mind up about the obsessive behaviour.

Repeat Attenders is available now on Vimeo and BroadwayHD, and comes to Amazon and Apple TV from July 16.

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