Sunday, January 26, 2014

Memories of Musicals Past


Thirty years of directing musical theater for community organizations and high schools has certainly left me with a lot of memorable moments. The most dramatic, I think, was opening night of a production of a sweet little show called “Heidi” (based on the novel of the same name). Two scenes before the end of the show, everything went off. I mean, everything. The sound “wound down” and the entire auditorium was plunged into darkness. My first thought: how do I get six hundred people out of here safely when it’s pitch black? Fortunately, Stroudsburg High School had (and I’m sure still does) good generators that gave us emergency lighting in seconds. The darkness had resulted in stunned silence. Lights coming up gave everyone a feeling of relief, and a murmur went through the audience. I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere, but that’s exactly what happened.

I went up to the lighting booth to find my lighting director frantically looking for the cause, convinced he’d overloaded a circuit. We learned quickly from a security guard that the entire town of Stroudsburg had gone dark due to a tranformer exploding. So there wouldn’t be a quick fix. Backstage, I learned later, the classrooms we used for dressing rooms had gone dark and were not lit by the emergency lights, though the hallways were. We had panicky youngsters crying, but cooler heads prevailed and moms in the cast and backstage crew quickly lit candles and calmed the kids down.

Two more scenes. So the director, pretending to be in control, went onstage and addressed the audience. We want to finish the show, I told them, but we don’t have sound or stage lights, so we need your cooperation so our actors can be heard. The emergency lighting did cover the stage, though it was pale and strange. And our two young actresses playing Heidi and Clara were wonderfully composed, stayed in character and sang their sweet duet beautifully. The orchestra was guessing at what they were playing: all the stand lights, of course, had gone out. I don’t know how they did it.

It was wonderful to hear the applause for the performance; I think we all felt a little like we were part of a shipwreck party! We were told the emergency lighting would probably only stay on for forty-five minutes, so we hurried the cast and crew out of the building, ushers and staff saying to the audience members as they exited, “drive carefully.” There were no traffic lights on in the entire downtown area.

My favorite memory of that unforgettable night, though, was an onstage ad lib from the actor who was playing Heidi’s grandfather. The line preceding the power failure was one Heidi delivered, something like: Grandfather! Guess what I brought you!

As soon as the lights came up, “Grandfather” quipped, “A blackout?” It definitely served to ease the tension. Sometimes ad libs can be a very good thing.