It's happening more and more. Everyone and everything seems to be running later and later. Which made me ask myself the question: Does this type of thing happen at the theater? The answer, I decided, is yes and no.
Granted, in 6,000-plus trips to the theater, I don't think I've ever attended a performance that started right on time. Not in this country, anyway. When I went to see The King and I in Tokyo in 1989, the Friday evening performance was supposed to start at 6 pm -- and it did. I should have known, because every train I was scheduled to take during that trip had arrived precisely at the moment it was expected. Still, I had gotten to my seat just seconds before six, assuming that I had the standard seven-minute grace period that every New York show affords its audiences. (You know that, don't you? All evening performances of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions actually begin at 8:07pm, even 8:08pm -- but no later, unless something is seriously wrong.)
Oh, there was the production of Applause at the Westbury Music Fair that started a good half-hour late -- make that a bad half-hour late -- one Sunday afternoon, because the train to the Long Island playhouse had left the station late and the actor playing Duane was on it. I might add that he was apoplectic, because he had no understudy -- and no cell-phone, since they hadn't yet been invented. When Duane finally arrived, he found Eva Gabor sitting on the edge of the stage, chatting with the crowd and killing time until he got there.
Tommy Tune should have done that in April 1977 when he was in Boston, getting ready to do his one-man show, Ichabod. A two-man show, really, for it was a musical that needed a pianist. But, 20 minutes after the supposed 3pm starting time, the show had not yet begun because -- as Tune came out to explain -- the pianist hadn't yet showed and phone calls to his hotel room had yielded no answer. Tune then decided that he'd just go out there and do the show a cappella. Five minutes into it, though, you could see in his eyes that he knew he'd made a mistake. The show seemed sterile without the music. Thank the Lord that only a few more minutes went by before the pianist was seen rushing onto the stage, quickly spreading his sheet music atop the piano and mumbling "Please excuse me" to the audience. Tune then re-started the show from the top. (Years later, I asked him about the experience. He told me that the pianist had been sitting under a tree in heavenly Boston Common that sunny Sunday afternoon and had fallen asleep!)
Then there was opening night of The Happy Time, Kander and Ebb's 1968 musical. (Actually, I should say that it was their first 1968 musical; later that year came Zorba. Those were the days!). As reported by William Goldman in his landmark book The Season, the show was to have started at 6:45pm but hadn't yet begun a full 25 minutes later because Clive Barnes, then the critic for The New York Times, wasn't there. He was lecturing in Pittsburgh and was delayed in getting back. Finally, at 7:10pm, producer David Merrick rung up the curtain. Barnes arrived 15 minutes later -- a full 40 minutes late -- and, reports Goldman, "gave the show a nice enough notice, basing his knowledge of what he saw on Dr. Johnson's theory that a man does not have to taste an entire keg of wine to comment on its contents."
Nevertheless, Goldman notes that Barnes "might have liked the show more had he seen it all" and that "many of the other critics might not have been as hostile to The Happy Time had Barnes been in his proper place. Some of the notices were unexpectedly blistering, and there was a genuine agreement that the critics were sore. One of them turned on a member of The Happy Time management and said angrily, 'We're sitting around here waiting for that guy like a bunch of pigs.' Obviously, the other critics knew that no curtain would be held 25 minutes for them." (Indeed, it wouldn't have.)
But, all in all, there aren't many shows that start as interminably late as the average contemporary dentist or doctor. Yes, there is occassionally one so tardy that a lout in the audience begins clapping in rhythm -- the universal symbol for, "Hey, let's get this thing started!" Still, when you think of it, a play's beginning only seven or eight minutes late is really quite an achievement. What's more, don't you get the impression that when a show is late in starting, it's not the show's fault? I believe that everyone backstage, from the biggest star to the lowliest crew member, is rarin' to go at 8pm. What's holding them up is usually the audience, which isn't yet totally seated. Surely you've sat in a theater 10 minutes before show time, looked around, seen a sea of empty seats, and thought, "Wow, is this place going to be empty tonight!" Then the deluge -- and, by 7:58pm, the place is almost full. Almost, for not even the seven- or eight-minute grace period is enough for the most recalcitrant of theatergoers.
We've all had the experience of watching the lights dim on a show's first scene and then seeing packs of tardy theatergoers scooting down the aisle as fast as roaches on a kitchen floor when a light is suddenly turned on in the middle of the night. These packs are usually made up of couples, one of whom is furious with the other for he or she is the reason that this happened. I'm a pretty prompt person in general, and I daresay the biggest reason for this is that I'm a constant theatergoer. I make a concerted effort to be in my seat for the beginning of each show, so I've come to know how much time I'll need to get someplace. I can literally count on the fingers of one hand the shows for which I've been late in nearly 44 years of constant theatergoing: Five in all that time -- and, believe me, some of those five really weren't my fault. So I'll make the blanket statement that if everyone went to the theater on a regular basis, they'd become more prompt for all dates and appointments. Just one more of a hundred or so reasons why everyone in the world should attend the theater more often.
While waits for dentists, doctors, and trains seem to have increased exponentially in the last few decades, theater performances have held steady in starting close to right on time. So I tip my hat to all those casts and crews who are ready to begin their work at their appointed hour. By the way, when I took that 1989 trip to Tokyo, I met a number of theatrical types who told me they'd let me know when they were bringing a show to New York. Indeed they did, and I went to the opening night at the Japan Society on East 47th Street. The show was supposed to start at 8pm, and I was sure to get to my seat by the appointed hour, just in case the management decided to be very Japanese and start exactly on time. In fact, it didn't. As I sat there, I wondered if the management had planned to accommodate American audiences by starting the show at 8:07. How I smiled when it started at 8:03:30. Now, isn't that the perfect compromise between American and Japanese customs?
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]