Theatre in Film: Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Written by Ashleigh Gardner
October 28, 2016
We return to Part V in our Theatre in Film series, a weekly segment of Performer Stuff’s blog where we discuss a film that features a life in theatre. Part V of Theatre in Film celebrates movies from 1995 to 1999 that feature social, moral, and ethical issues within the theatre — except Waiting for Guffman, the hysterical, outrageous, and totally relatable improvised mockumentary by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy.
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: Christopher Guest, Catharine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, and Bob Balaban
In the small town of Blaine, Missouri, high school theatre director Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) has been tasked with putting on a community theatre musical production called Red, White, and Blaine for the town’s 150th anniversary. As Corky holds auditions for the play with musical director Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban), a delusional and severely untalented group of Blaineians try their hand at acting and singing. Among them are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catharine O’Hara) who perform a shoddy version of “Midnight at the Oasis”; Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), a Dairy Queen worker, who performs “Teacher’s Pet” and a lengthy soap-opera-esque monologue; and Dr. Alan Pearl (Eugene Levy), the town dentist, who somewhat adeptly sings a medley of various songs.
Excited at the prospect of returning to New York for theatre, Corky writes to Mort Guffman, a Broadway producer, and requests his presence at opening night of the show. Corky leads the cast to believe that they may have a shot on Broadway. Meanwhile, no one knows their lines, Corky is running out of money, and Lloyd is furious that there’s no set schedule for music rehearsals. After Corky approaches the town’s council and is denied more funding, he nearly quits the show, but is convinced to come back…when he must fill in for a cast member who drops on opening night. When the curtain finally rises, Guffman isn’t in his reserved seat, and the cast is devastated until they see a man (Paul Benedict) take his place in the front row — this must be Guffman. After the show, Corky leads the man into the dressing room. The cast is thrilled to meet him…until they find out he isn’t Guffman.
Why it matters:
Though community theatre can be immensely rewarding, entertaining, and of the highest calibre, Waiting for Guffman showcases the most hysterical, awkward, and hilariously uncomfortable aspects of community theatre: bad auditions, inappropriate auditions, amateur actors who treat others with intense disrespect, misguided directors, low funding, bad acting (and singing), and high expectations mingled with profound disappointment.
Libby Mae Brown’s character is quite possibly the most relatable character in the film, embodying the young actor we’ve all been at some point in our adolescence: naive, hopeful, passionate, and eager to please. Her job at Dairy Queen has held her captive for “8 months…7…I dunno, something like that.” In her first interview, she’s obviously bored with her job as she smokes a cigarette and counts the food items people can order. However, when she’s in front of Corkey and Lloyd in the audition room, she’s vibrant and animated (although her performance is cringe-worthy). It’s in the theatre that she’s seen smiling for the first time, and her performance during the night of the show is energetic and pure. She talks about wanting to go to New York to discover different ideas and experiences –a dream many theatre kids have themselves.
Of course, the overarching theme of Waiting for Guffman is the thought of expecting something greater…and that something never coming to fruition. The title of the film refers to Tom Stoppard’s 1953 play, Waiting for Godot in which two characters, Vladamir and Estragon, sit around in the middle of a cross-roads waiting for a person named “Godot” to appear. Guest’s Guffman never comes, as his plane is downed in New York due to a snow storm. Stoppard’s Godot never arrives, either, tempting Vladamir and Estragon to commit suicide. Unlike Waiting for Godot, Waiting for Guffman shows us what happens to the characters post-disappointment, indicating that whatever happens to us is, ultimately, in our own hands — including our success.
This film is the second featured in Part V of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part V.
- An Awfully Big Adventure (1995)
- Theatre in Film Halloween Special – Stage Fright (2014)
- Shakespeare in Love (1998) (Coming soon.)
- Cradle Will Rock (1999) (Coming soon.)
- Topsy Turvy (1999) (Coming soon.)
Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).