Thursday, August 02, 2018


Years ago I was in a community theatre production of Guys And Dolls.  My character had a pretty good line and I expected a laugh. But opening night, nothing.  I figured it wasn't the line--this is a hit musical that's been getting laughs for decades. And I thought I had at least a decent delivery--my other lines got laughs, after all.

And then I had an idea. The way the scene was staged, I was far away from the action when my character suddenly speaks (and has no other lines to follow).  So the next night (without permission from the director), when it was my cue, I walked about four steps over to the main characters and said the line, which got a nice laugh.  The walking drew attention to me, as well as bringing me near the people I was addressing, so the audience was actually listening to what I said rather than wondering who just said that?

The lesson is when an audience is confused, they're not enjoying themselves.  Without clarity (even in challenging material), nothing can work.

To go from the ridiculous to the sublime, original Broadway productions have the same problem.  The people in charge have to figure out why certain things aren't working.  (And they don't know they're a classic yet--chances are they're not.)

Shows used to try out in other cities before they came to New York.  They'd go through numerous changes with the creators and director tearing out their hair trying to fix what doesn't work. (Writer Larry Gelbart famously said "If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical.") 

There's a famous story about A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the first Broadway musical to feature words and music by Stephen Sondheim.  It's a farce set in ancient Rome (written by the aforementioned Gelbart and Burt Shevelove).  When the show was trying out in Washington, D.C., it was failing, and the people behind it couldn't understand why.  They called in director-choreographer Jerome Robbins to give it a look.  Robbins said the opening number was killing everything that came afterward.  The tune was called "Love Is In The Air," which as a light and breezy number about love didn't properly set up a low, knockabout farce.  Sondheim quickly came up with the classic "Comedy Tonight," Robbins staged it, and the show was a hit from that point on.

But that was a case of creating the right number for the spot.  Sometimes the songwriters feel the number should work but don't know why it doesn't.  Often it's because the song, even if it's good on its own, is taking the plot in a direction the audience doesn't like, or is wrong for the character, or features a character the audience doesn't want to hear from. Sometimes, as in my Guys And Dolls example, it's a matter of presentation.  A couple examples come to mind.

There's "On The Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady, which originally got a tepid response.  Composer Frederick Loewe and director Moss Hart were prepared to cut it, but lyricist Alan Jay Lerner thought he could save it.  The song is performed by Freddy, a secondary character whom the audience barely recognizes--why is this nobody alone onstage singing a love song to the lead Eliza?

So Lerner added an introductory verse (often cut from recordings) where Freddy reminds us how he met Eliza in a previous scene and how enchanting he finds her.  Now knowing what's going on, the audience could enjoy what became one of the biggest hits from the show.

Then there's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" from South Pacific. Star Mary Martin had the idea of actually shampooing her hair onstage.  The songwriters, Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with the director, Joshua Logan, thought this would be a real staging coup.  But when they tried it out of town, the number didn't go over.  They couldn't figure out what was wrong.

And then someone realized the audience was so surprised to see a working shower onstage that they were talking amongst themselves--Is that a real shower? Is she really shampooing herself? and so on.  They couldn't settle down and just listen to the song.  So they came up with a solution--Martin would sing an entire chorus of the song so the audience could enjoy it, and only then start washing her hair.  From that point on, the number was a showstopper.

So if you've got a Broadway musical out of town, don't cut a number just because it isn't going over.  Think about it for a while.  Then probably cut it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work. And nice encore.

10:17 AM, August 02, 2018  

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