NEW YORK — As the continued popularity of such shows as "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" indicates, there is something inherently captivating about watching the creative process unfold on-screen. The late-night panic, the crippling self-doubt, the sweaty-palmed anxiety and — most of all — the ability to create something beautiful under less-than-ideal circumstances can be not only entertaining, but inspiring.
That's the impetus behind "One Night Stand: Creating a Play in a Day," a new documentary that goes behind the scenes of "The 24-Hour Musicals," a fundraising event in which teams of playwrights, composers, actors and directors write, rehearse and finally perform a 15-minute show over the course of a single, sleep-deprived day.
First came "The 24-Hour Plays," an annual rite in the New York theater world since 1995; "The 24-Hour Musicals" were first staged in 2008.
Shot in April 2009 by documentary filmmakers Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton, "One Night Stand" follows four creative teams beginning late on a Sunday with a preliminary casting session. Holed up overnight at the National Arts Club off Gramercy Park, the playwrights and composers have until 8 the following morning to write their shows. Rehearsals begin shortly thereafter, and curtain is at 8 p.m. sharp.
"It's like the birthing process," Dalton said.
Now, in an apt twist, Fathom Events will broadcast "One Night Stand" in some 450 theaters across the country for one night, Jan. 30, to be exact. An independently produced documentary is lucky to play on 12 screens these days, but the unusual distribution plan will re-create the one-off spirit of the original event while bringing the film to a wider, nonfestival audience.
"I think people like seeing someone else enact their nightmare, you know? The laughs are the relief," said "Saturday Night Live" alum Rachel Dratch, the film's unofficial protagonist. "I lived the nightmare and survived."
Having participated in "The 24-Hour Plays" numerous times, Dratch agreed to try out a musical because she figured she'd be cast in a comic-relief type of role where her merely passable singing voice would not be a problem.
"The way I describe my voice is good enough to get a character part in a high school musical," she explained. Instead, Dratch winds up in "Rachel Said Sorry," about a single bridesmaid who gets a little too honest with her engaged best friend on the way to brunch. The part requires her not only to sing a very sincere number about friendship but also to follow "Rent" star Tracie Thoms. " I wanted to hold up a sign to be like, 'I know this doesn't sound good,'" she said.
Other participants include two TV actors with strong musical theater backgrounds, "Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson and "30 Rock's" Cheyenne Jackson. They appear in "Dr. Williams," a kitschy melodrama about three brothers, all surgeons, obsessed with a female patient. Richard Kind, another TV and theater actor, also shows up as a Ponzi schemer who moves to Staten Island in disgrace in "Islands." Behind-the-scenes talent includes composer Lance Horne and playwright Rinne Groff.
Although Dratch's palpable sense of terror makes her the most memorable "character" in the documentary — "I don't think I know what I'm doing," she confesses at one point, staring nervously off into the distance between sips of Starbucks — she certainly isn't the only one who found the experience challenging. Kind repeatedly bungles the lyrics to his big number; Ferguson completely blanks on-stage. Even Jackson, a seasoned musical theater veteran, struggles mightily. One composer, convinced the ordeal will be the ruination of his career, actually throws up.
"The whole movie, everybody in it is taking a risk," Sperling said. "It's about putting yourself out there."
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