Posted on March 9, 2007 at 10:36 am

A ticket to a Broadway show costs over a hundred dollars. I think for that amount of money, you should be guaranteed a flawless performance with the entire original company. (In fact, I think for that amount of money, you should get to go home with the chorus member of your choice, but that’s outside the bounds of this discussion.) The fact is, however, that you’re not guaranteed much, other than a hopefully-not-too-uncomfortable chair and a Playbill. Nathan Lane might be out, lighting cues might get missed, a piece of scenery might get stuck, Mary Poppins may not fly, the principal violinist might get stuck in traffic on his way to the theater. You still spent over a hundred bucks, but you’re not getting what you paid for. Most of the shows that I do, and most of the shows I attend, go off without a hitch (or at least, without a hitch that I notice), but this story is about the inevitable night when things go very wrong.

We actually had a performance of Parade that started without a bass player. About five minutes before curtain, someone realized that the bassist hadn’t shown up yet. He didn’t answer his cell phone when we called. So we sent the associate conductor out to call possible bass players who might be available to show up immediately. Right before the trial sequence started – about forty minutes into the show – a middle-aged guy with long gray hair and a beard appeared with a bass in his hand, fairly reeking of pot smoke. He looked at the pit full of frantically sawing musicians, smiled, shook his head with amusement and tried to play along. (As it turns out, he did okay, especially considering he was sight-reading.) We later found out that the bass player who was supposed to have shown up that day (who was a sub anyway) had been hit by a cab on his way to the theater. He woke up in the hospital at about midnight yelling that he had to hurry to get to “the parade” and all the nurses thought he was delusional because there were no parades that weekend in New York City. If you were in the audience that night, you might have noticed, but you probably would have just been aware that something sounded thin in the orchestra and you would have blamed the sound department.

Over the course of 13‘s run at the Taper this winter, the following things actually occurred: an actor missed an entrance, causing another actor to jump two pages of very important expositional dialogue, which meant there was a whole scene later in the show that made no sense at all; a big revolving set piece got caught on another set piece, leaving a big gaping hole in the middle of the stage, just as a massive complicated company number was happening; an actor fainted backstage in the middle of the show, her understudy was in the house watching and couldn’t be located, so another understudy (who hadn’t studied this particular part) ran on and did one number with no costume and no rehearsal; another actor collapsed three-quarters of the way through the show and was replaced by his understudy (who was four inches shorter and whose voice was an octave higher) for the last scene; the guitarist’s automatic tuner somehow went kaflooey and so he ended up playing a quarter-tone sharp for the first half of the show; and then all sorts of crazy key changes for sick actors, band members forgetting to play, repeated lyrics, mumbling, breaking character, corpsing, and the usual joys of live theater. If you were in the audience, you might have noticed, but you probably didn’t mind too much.

Unless you were there on Tuesday, February 6.

A subscriber at the Taper writes:

First, I need to start this email to tell you how much we loved and enjoyed 13. I took my two granddaughters (12 and 13) to see it in January and bragged and raved about it to everyone we know. Several friends have purchased tickets and I know are going this week.

I had to see it again and this time take grandpa, my daughter and her husband. So I purchased 6 tickets, this time full price of $55… but it was worth it, because it was going to be great.

Well, we just got home and we are so upset. The microphones were not working and we could not hear a thing. Some were completely off and some were too low. The jokes were lost, the beautiful voices were hidden behind the music, and nobody could understand what the characters were saying. I guess I’m writing you because I don’t know who to complain to. I hate to complain about this terrific show, but after spending about $300 and a frustrating evening, I had to tell someone related to the show. I would contact the Mark Taper Forum if I knew how. (I may still.)

All evening I wanted to get up and go the sound booth and say something, but I was stuck in the middle row, middle chair and would have to climb over quite a few people, too disruptive.

If there’s anything you could do, please… Could you maybe direct me to the proper channels to complain? I’m sure many people this evening had this same complaint. People actually walked out a third into the show, coats and all.

It is such a shame after all the bragging I did, my family left very disappointed.

Person Whose Name Has Been Redacted

All right, let’s be frank: for a control freak like myself, this is the worst letter I could possibly get. So, while sitting on an airplane waiting to take off early the next morning, here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Person Whose Name I’ve Redacted,

While I’m actually going to respond to your letter at some length on my website, I wanted to write you back quickly to thank you for what you wrote. I woke up at 4:30 this morning to catch a flight to NY and your letter was the first thing that greeted me.

To say I am heartsick at your words would be an understatement. As a composer, I consider the sound department one of those necessary evils that I do my best to control, with minimal success. It is immensely frustrating and disappointing after months of rehearsal and years of writing to discover that there is an additional barrier between the actors and the audience, a barrier that is often woefully ineffective at achieving its presumed purpose of increased clarity.

The first thing you need to know is that last night’s show was an anomaly. The regular sound mixer for the show has been training a sub for several weeks, and last night was the sub’s first night mixing the show unsupervised.

Within minutes of the end of the show, I received several emails alerting me to the fact that the sub had not done a good job, a fact that was also mentioned in the stage manager’s nightly report (I was, atypically, not at the performance last night). Immediately I sent an email insisting that the regular mixer do all of the remaining shows and that the sub not be allowed to have a “second chance.” I tell you all of this to reassure you that your friends and associates coming later this week will not have the same unfortunate experience you had.

I do believe, emphatically, unquestionably, that you should make your concerns known to the theater. The house manager of the Mark Taper Forum, Linda Walker, keeps records of all these incidents and your letter will be a valuable piece of supporting information. The technical director of the theater, Jonathan Lee, keeps tracks of all employees and their subs and needs to hear when they’re not doing a good job. And the producer of the theater, Michael Ritchie, should know when his very important subscribers feel (legitimately, in this instance) that the theater has let them down. You can reach them all via email, and you can get their email addresses by calling the subscriber services line (to whom you should also register your disappointment). I think your $300 entitles you to more than just the courtesy of a reply, but I can’t guarantee that anything will come of it.

I do want to state finally that, as the generous tone of your letter already makes clear that you understand, this wasn’t anyone’s “fault,” per se. Subs are a fact of life in the theater, unprepared subs are a rare and unfortunate but inevitable occurrence, a Tuesday night is as good a night as any to try someone out, and steps have been and are being taken to ensure that your experience (and that of the 700 other patrons in the theater last night) is not repeated.

I wish I could say that the buck stops here and take some kind of deeper responsibility, but all I can really do is share your disappointment and encourage you not to lose faith in the work done at the Taper or in the wonders of live theater. If I may speak on behalf of everyone at the Center Theater Group, I am deeply sorry that you were not well served last night.

Jason Robert Brown

Which is all well and good, but doesn’t really mean anything. Someone still took the time to plan and prepare a great night with her family, and what she got instead was a mess for which no one wants to take responsibility. (For what it’s worth, I blind-copied every member of the Center Theater Group production team on my letter, including all of the people named above, and Michael Ritchie wrote me back by the time my flight landed to say he was working to figure out what had gone wrong.)

Here’s the upshot of this whole letter:

1) The sound mixer sub was actually guaranteed a certain number of shows, and the regular mixer had already contracted out to do other things, so the sub did end up mixing the show again, several times, including the final performance. I was never nuts about the way he mixed it, but by the final show, I felt like he got to an acceptable place. I sat next to him and gave him notes during the shows, which wasn’t fun for either of us.

2) The subscriber did in fact contact the house manager, who told her that nobody else had complained that night and so she couldn’t really do anything to help her. There’s a lesson for you all – if something bothers you about the performance, go tell the house manager. There’s value in numbers.

I’ve been to shows where things go dreadfully wrong, and I always think, “Well, if this were my show, someone would be held accountable.” And it turns out, I’m wrong. There’s not much I can do to hold all that shit together, which is an incredibly frustrating realization.

As I said, most of the time, it all goes smoothly. Actors are amazing at covering their asses; even when things are completely insane, most actors won’t show it, they’ll just start instinctively modifying what they’re doing to solve the problems. Musicians are equally adept at adjusting to the moment, jumping or adding beats or transposing on a dime if a number starts to go off. And it is to all of their credit, all of those people who are most exposed on the stage every night, that most audiences have no idea how much goes wrong during even an unexceptional, normal performance.