When Things Go Wrong Onstage

I’ve never seen performers have so much fun with a huge technical mistake. Last Saturday during a matinee, the cast of Something Rotten! turned what could have been a disaster into a spontaneous moment that made the uproarious script even funnier.

Although most of us in the audience didn’t know it, the set for Scene 4 failed to change from a South London street in 1595 to the inside of a house on that street. The three actors proceeded as usual until, according to the narrative, Nick Bottom had to find the family’s moneybox. Looking around as though trying to enter a door that wasn’t there, Brian d’Arcy James said, “I know that moneybox is somewhere in this theater.”

At which point a deep, irony-drenched voice came over the speakers saying there was a technical difficulty. Was this part of the show? For a few seconds it was hard to tell. Then d’Arcy James stepped forward and did a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo exiting stage left, and the curtain closed.

John Cariani as Nigel Bottom, Brian d'Arcy James as Nick Bottom and Heidi Blickenstaff as Bea.

When it opened a few minutes later, the scene change had been made, the Bottom brothers and Nick’s wife Bea were now inside their home, and the moneybox was right there on a shelf. They took their lines from the top of that scene. While recounting her day seeing cabbages thrown at a guy in the stocks, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) said, “I feel like I’ve told you all this before.” That got an extra laugh, as she had spontaneously doubled herself the performer and the character.

Later, when the soothsayer (played by Brad Oscar) was looking into the future, giddily enumerating the many possibilities of the as yet uninvented form of musicals, he included “technical difficulties” in his litany.

Something Rotten!, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, is possibly the most entertaining show on Broadway. It’s spectacularly clever, not just in its story and lyrics (music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick), but in the way it weaves in images and tunes from musicals of the past. The actors are top-notch and the dance numbers are all-out, syncopated fun.

But catching a show that had “technical difficulties” made it even more entertaining. These actors think on their toes, physically and verbally. Witnessing this was a lesson in how to handle Things Going Wrong in the theater. It reminded me of something performance artist Laurie Anderson has said—something like, “I love it when equipment breaks because then I get to improvise.”

A musical number as envisioned by Nick Bottom of the musical of the future. All photos by Joan Marcus.

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