We go to theatre to see if someone will #$&@ up.

There’s a very popular thread on BroadwaySpace right now called “Mess-ups on stage”.  It’s 8 pages long and features tons of comments like this:

i saw legally blonde the musical back in march and during positive
laura bell’s wig fell off right before the part when she’s supposed to
say “girls, how is this helping? he’s not even here! he left while we
were shaking junk”. well, laura bell thought on her toes and said
“girls, how is this helping? he’s not even here and i shook so hard my
hair fell off!” and everyone was laughing and cheering so hard that she
missed her cue and they had to bring the music back around.

Wigs falling off, technical screw-ups, and so on, are all things Producers spend millions trying to avoid, but ironically, audiences treasure them . . . and talk about them.

And as long you’re not talking about Billy Elliot-sized preview problems, most shows aren’t hurt by them (in fact, those preview problems don’t seem to be affecting BE’s grosses).  Some shows are even helped.  That’s why at least two shows that I know of, Will Rogers Follies and Falsettos, had planned “mess-ups” written into the show (that’s right – that dog jumping back on the stage 3 minutes after the dog act was over happened every night).

What does this tell us about our audience?

Live theatergoers are different than people who just sit in front of a screen.  They are thrill seekers.  They like the risk involved with seeing something unfold right before our eyes.  They like thinking that anything could happen, and sometimes does.

You do too, don’t you?  I bet you all remember something that went wrong in a show that you saw.  And I bet you’ll never forget it.

Even those people who sit in front of a screen are getting more and more titillated by what’s happening live.  Look at this quote from a NY Times article about the Rosie O’Donnell’s live variety show:

Promotions for the
show remind viewers that “anything can happen”; in a decade of
time-shifting and fast-forwarding, “live” is an important sales pitch.  It’s
not only “American Idol,” the nation’s most-watched show, that proves
the point: NBC’s only show among broadcast’s Top 20 for the week ending
on Nov. 16 was Sunday’s live N.F.L. game. And the network’s most storied franchise, “Saturday Night Live,” has had a robust year.

Live entertainment, including the theater, isn’t going anywhere, no matter what people may say.  In fact, as we become more and more inundated with 2-dimensional forms on entertainment on our tv, laptop, cell phone, etc., the live theater experience becomes more rare, and more valuable.

As long as we keep F-ing up every once in awhile.

Got a favorite “mess up”?  Comment about it below.

I’ve got two:

  • Matthew Broderick coming out in the finale scene of How To Succeed with his fly down – then zipping it up and flashing us a hugh Ferris-Bueller sized grin.
  • The Goodbye Girl with Bernadette Peters and Martin Short.  Bernadette was under the weather that night, but trouper that she is, she was out there, even though the audience could tell it was a tough one for her.  Until, Mr. Short made her laugh during “Paula”.  The show got so much more fun for all of us at that moment.


  • David Surkin says:

    It really wasn’t a mess up but one of the most incredible unexpected moments for the people on stage.
    It was opening night of The Seagull in Central Park back in 2001. There had been rain all morning and it stopped right before the show. But as the first act went on the rain began and then turned into a full blown Summer storm.
    They kept taking breaks in the show to let the rain die down
    The weather really reached it’s peak during a scene between Konstantine and Sorin played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken.
    It was just incredible to see these actors have to deal with something out of their control and incorporate it into the scene.
    It was also cool to see a bunch of top level celebrities get rained on too.

  • That “live” experience is probably a huge reason of why we see services like uStream.tv, Justin.tv, (the now closed) Yahoo Live, and similar online live broadcasting sites becoming so successful.
    I’d love to see the theatre industry find ways to work live internet broadcasting into their marketing. The industry is so New York-centric, it’s really impossible to be a part of the hundreds of events that take place unless you live in the city. Live internet broadcasting could bridge that gap and build/strengthen audiences in a really powerful and relatively affordable way.
    Supplement that with time-shiftable, downloadable content on iTunes or actual licensed content on YouTube, and you have a recipe for an industry that needs to focus more on building the audience from the outside in.

  • I’ve actually never seen big mistakes on stage (at least not unintentional ones–sorry, had to be snarky for moment), but I just saw a small one at a regional production of ALTAR BOYZ. At the end when the boyz came out in all white, Mark’s fly was down, and he was wearing black undies. It was such a stark contrast, you couldn’t help but notice. When they stopped dancing, he looked down, notice, then mugged totally in character and zipped. It was a priceless response.

  • Skye Leith says:

    Once I was performing at the Las Vegas Hilton, in one of those tacky mega-productions complete with an onstage volcano, 50 topless women, and elephants. The star elephant, Tanya, was doing a handstand on a revolving platform during her solo act, and chose this moment to relieve herself. A fountain of pee, as if from a garden hose, drew a large wet circle on the stage as her platform rotated. The show, of course, went on.

  • Sharon Carr says:

    BOTH from Danny Kaye in “TWO BY TWO” (??) the musical about NOAH and the Ark
    1. on crutches, he chased another actor off stage and yelled after him: “GO AHEAD, GO TO NO NO NANETTE!”
    2. singing a love song to his ‘wife’ while sitting on a rock together, she wiggled uncomfortably all through this wonderful song he sang to her … when the song was over, she turned her back to the audience, laughing and rolling her eyes – he had complete unzipped her dress while singing to her.

  • No big screw ups in memory, although I have friends who went to see Elaine Stritch once and she stopped the show for orange juice.
    Certainly that’s one of the things I love about the theatre. The live-ness. That circle of energy that moves from the stage to the reaction of the audience and right back up on stage.

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