Making changes to theater in the wake of tragedy.

Entertainment doesn’t exist in a bubble.

An audience’s enjoyment (or lack thereof), or their artistic takeaways are affected by so many other factors . . . including their mood, the weather, the shows they’ve just seen . . . and, of course, what’s happening in the world.

This can play in a show’s favor (The revival of Chicago comes to mind, as it opened in a post OJ trial atmosphere), but it can also hurt.

A couple of unfortunate events happened recently that had a direct impact on some current shows.  Unlike film, which can’t make any changes to their material once it’s in the can, the question came up for the Producers and Authors of those shows of whether or not to make adjustments to their scripts to be more sensitive to the audience given recent events.

The first show in question was Billy Elliot in London the night after Margaret Thatcher died (Billy features a very critical song about Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, and some very unflattering large puppets).    Billy made the courageous and very 2013 choice of asking the audience if they approved of the number being performed.  The audience voted yes, and as I often say, if you give people a choice, they can’t complain.

The second was The Assembled Parties which just opened on Broadway to a set of great reviews.  Parties unfortunately featured a section about building a bomb, and also an “unflattering reference to the city of Boston.”  In light of what happened last week, Author Richard Greenberg made some quick edits to his play to make sure he wasn’t being unintentionally insensitive.

Not as recently, Avenue Q was faced with the difficult decision of what to do with the character of Gary Coleman after his untimely passing.  If you’ve seen the show, then you know that in Q, the character/real person is poked at a bit for fun.  (The Authors chose not to make a change to that character . . . and interestingly enough for several performances after, the character got “entrance” applause!”)

Should playwrights make these changes?  Or should they let them be?  If audiences connect them to current events, could that add even more weight to what the Author is trying to say?  Less?  Should we consider shows locked, like a film, and never change them no matter what?

Here’s what I think . . . if a line, a paragraph, a song, etc. is going to take an audience out of the world that you’re working so hard at trying to create, and you risk not being able to get them back, then yes, an alteration (even if only temporary) is not only justified, it’s a must.  Sure, it may involve a concession on part of the creators of the show, but better to loosen up a bit, then to lose your audience altogether.

What do you think?


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  • Kevin Lambert says:

    Completely agree. But it must be up to the AUTHOR(S) to make the change(s), if necessary.

  • Michael Dale says:

    Noel Coward decided to cut his best song in The Girl Who Came To Supper, “Long Live The King, If He Can,” after JFK was killed. Ultimately, I think it should be the playwright’s decision, but I do sympathise with actors who have to directly deal with the audience’s reaction.

  • Lisa B. says:

    I have mixed emotions about this. I understand the desire to not offend. I understand that an adverse and unintended reaction could be a loss at the box office. No one wants to rub salt in a wound. No one wants to make people uncomfortable or lose them as an audience. But wait. Sometimes theater is uncomfortable. Sometimes it resonates with something inside us in ways we do not expect. I once was at a performance of Me and My Girl where a woman in the fifth row had a heart attack during the song “take it on the chin”. As they were rushing to get the woman removed from her aisle the actress was singing – “after all is done and said, pretty soon we’ll all be dead…” Never taking her eyes from the scene unfolding in front of her. We do not live in bubbles. Real world things happen and shape us. We bring all of that into the theater. If someone had a mental breakdown and then went to see Alan’s MacBeth I would imagine their reaction would be very different than mine. When collective tragedy, such as 911 or the bombings in Boston occur of course the psyche of your audience is affected. Isn’t that part of it? Theater is about a dialogue between the artists and the audience. If certain colors of a play become more pronounced in light of current events, that adds to the conversation. Perhaps, instead of changing the show a blurb explaining the decision not to would be a way to keep the intentions of the author and the show in context. In many cases grown up audiences can deal with art reflecting reality. Isn’t the goal of theater in some way, to have the audience be affected personally?

  • Dave Q says:

    Remember when Spamalot changed the “Britney Spears” reference in “Diva’s Lament” back in 2009, during the height of Britney’s head-shaved-breakdown? Idle and Nichols said they didn’t want to contributed to the national takedown of Britney. The right choice, I think!

  • Seth Duerr says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Ken. Much to the chagrin of playwrights, actors and co-producers.

    I never want the audience to be removed from the world of the play. Not for one bloody second.

  • Dawn says:

    We happened to be at Les Miz the night it reopened in a new theater in Japan, the day after the horrific images of Tianamen Square emerged on the world scene. Would you think that there would be any emotional response? Would you think that there might be any tribute from the cast? While I don’t speak Japanese (and this was done completely in Japanese), my husband noted that not one thing was said (and his Japanese is pretty good) to acknowledge world events, and given the culture and history, he wouldn’t have expected anything. For me, this was strange…

  • Andrea says:

    There are times when changing a line or song lyric is needed. And people seeing those shows for the first time may not even know there is anything different; they are just so engrossed with the show. If it is a major part of the show that everyone has talked about and some people may even call it a highlight of the show and come to see that section, I don’t think an author or director or actor can change it. The actor may be able to act differently with it and might even get a understanding response from the audience.

    I went to go see Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike two days after Annette Funicello had died. Vanya has a line where he’s talking about the good old days of growing up the Mickey Mouse club and one of their leaders, Annette Funicello. There was a sadden response from the audience (many of whom I believed had also grown up with Annette on tv.) And David Hyde Piece accepted that response; took it in, and worked with it, and for me, made it a connection with it and drove his whole point of the monologue than if he had just plowed right through it. Kudos to him.

  • Cash says:

    These decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Cutting the anti-Semitic remarks from “The Way of the World” is a no-brainer–it takes you out of the play. But when I cast a black actress (she was from Bristol, I can’t call her an African-American) as Hermia, and we later realized that at one point Lysander insults her with “Ethiop!”–after a conference, and with the consent of all concerned, we made it into a bit that added to the general hysteria of the scene. And then there was the time I directed a showcase scene from a tragicomedy about Soviet dissidents that went up the same week that Flight 007 was shot down, and even Robin Williams couldn’t have gotten a laugh with a Russian accent. (sigh)

  • Stephen Buckle says:

    Any successful mass-market work of art will have already gone through formal and informal censorship via the producer, writer, director, press, and audience approval for contemporary taste. This suggestion is unacceptable and unsustainable political correctness – a modern obsession. Perhaps use CLEAR signs in the foyer and Play Bill inserts to forewarn of scene content, even pre-show refunds! But NO NO NO script changes or censorship. Art must be upsetting, irreverent and disparaging at times (even bad taste); a pressure release valve for society. In the Billy case, most audiences know it gives dear Maggie a beating. I loved and met Mrs T once, and daughter Carol many times as a client of mine in the 1980’s.

  • Yvette Heyliger says:

    Theatre is live and in the moment for both actors and audience who are human beings living in the world. A play itself is a living thing in the world. If the overall message of the show is not compromised or the thread of the story lost, I see nothing wrong with making adjustments to “a line, a paragraph or a song.” As artists we have a duty to tell the truth, yes, but if a show is coming up against a drama or tragedy unfolding in “real life” that would directly affect and impact the audience (and the actors) negatively, then I would yield. I would ask myself, “is this line, paragraph or song absolutely necessary? Is it helpful or hurtful? Can the show go on without it?” I’ve learned as a playwright (who also produces) that I can’t be too precious about things. As artists we have to be like the mighty oak tree, firmly grounded and rooted in our noble art form, yet able to bend and yield to the unexpected winds and storms of life over which we have no control. In the face of tragic national or world events,if a show can go on without that “line, paragraph or song,” I would err on the side of compassion for the living, breathing human beings on both sides of the footlights. If a show has not yet been produced, I would ask myself if this is the right time for it to receive a production. Maybe it is a good time and can shed a new perspective on national or world events… or maybe not.

  • Joseph Giglio says:

    My visceral reaction was stronger than I had anticipated.

    It was:

    — Have we become so damned politically correct that we have to shelter everyone from the reality of things? —

    To me theater is live and raw. Drinking in the action that is being portrayed before us for that couple of hours. And if we squirm a bit then good for theater (Should Oscar Hammerstein II have pulled “You Have To Be Carefully Taught”? Hell NO! But today maybe he might be forced to do that unthinkable thing. But somehow I know he would have said NO).

    Having said that, if a playwright feels strongly enough to change his/her script because they feel inclined to do so and not from some outside influence (i.e. director, cast member or producer) then they should follow their heart and do so.

    Please do not let theater become as sterile as most of the media has become today!

    • Yvette Heyliger says:

      Joseph: I agree, as I said in my comment, as artists it is our duty to hold the mirror up to society, to tell the truth. But if we are facing a national or global tragedy and changing a line, without compromising the integrity of the show can be done, then why not do it? My plays are in-your-face socially conscious, change-the-world-one-ticket-buyer-at-a-time kind of stuff for the most part. I am a truth teller and I would never sacrifice truth for political correctness–I haven’t yet. But I would like to think that I can be fluid and able to adjust if faced with a sensitive national or global tragedy or event. We are not bureaucrats, we are artists. We are on the side of humanity.

  • George Rady says:

    Here’s the main problem… most Theatre audiences tend to be Liberal, Secular, Internationalist and admire irreverence for any (maybe all?) mainstream social concerns…

    But – if one wants to appeal to a broader crowd – and does not take into account that a LOT of people (most?) do NOT share these beliefs and values… being irreverent at a moment that has Hit the National Spotlight will only have ONE effect… the people offended will not say anything… they will simply NOT come back to see anything else done by the people involved.

    Now, some may say “Good Riddence – I don’t care if those people don’t come back” but I think that kind of attitude is guarenteed to ensure that – long term – one will not be “commercially” successful (If that’s important?) because this kind of attitude will eventually allienate more and more of one’s potential audience.


    IF one thinks “Gee, maybe I should soften this of that because of so-and-so…” than THAT should have been a consideration long before the work was made “public” maybe???

    I mean, If I want to make my statement about “A” and something happens – in REAL LIFE – that makes me re-consider what I have said about “A” than, as an artist, I don’t think that Artist has fully investigated their thoughts/feelings about “A” to begin wit’ – that maybe they need to work thru that material a bit deeper…

    A Mature Idea stands the test of Time… for ALL Time… and a Reality Check will only validate what makes that Idea… profound.


    • Yvette Heyliger says:

      I love what you have said here and I agree. I wonder if it leaves room for say, something like the recent bombing in Boston or the shootings in Newtown. These events could not have been fathomed by any of us. In this case, one must reconsider “A,” right?

      • George Rady says:

        Oh, I think we can anticipate this kind of occurence (which is why we won’t have a “Book of Mohammed”) I am just saying that IF one is making a bold artistic statement about other people, or group of people… or – moreover – their beliefs… it might be worth a moment to reflect “What if They are Right and I am Wrong” and approach it as an internal Debate 101 exercise… it may well temper one’s 1st inspiration… and lead to a 2nd – deeper – insight.

        Afterall, the guys who did this are 100% convinced that They are Right/Justified and speaking the “Truth” and a LOT of people agree with them… and that is the most dangerous (and “tragic”) part…

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