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How I Annoyed You

Filichia reveals what annoyed readers about his theater annoyances. logo
In a recent column, I cited Scott Cohen's book Don't You Hate That: 738 Annoying Things, which spurred me to rattle off 20 things that I hate about theater. Not all 20 sat well with everyone. Here are some of the objections that some of you had to my objections.

Steve Rosenthal's took issue with my being peeved "When a character falls to the floor and dies and the director has him lie face-up. The problem with that is that the poor 'dead' soul is seen to be still breathing -- especially because, many of the times when this happens on-stage, it's after a big scuffle, so the 'dead' person is out of breath from his struggling with someone. What would it take for a director to have the 'corpse' lie face down with his head facing away from the audience? That might not entirely solve the problem but it would help to make the person look 'more dead.'"

"But I'm someone who has often died on stage," wrote Rosenthal, "so I can say there is a good reason why you die face-up. If you lie face-down, you can destroy your back when actors come out to pick you up and carry you off. One time I 'died' face down in a show, and the people picking me up practically folded my back in half. That was the last time I did that. Sometimes, you have to give up a little realism in favor of safety." Okay, Steve -- duly noted. That does make sense. But believe me, I've seen plenty of plays where a person dies on stage and he stays there until the end of the scene or even the final curtain. If the script doesn't demand that some people come out to carry him off, I say he should drop dead face down, and breathe slowly and lightly.

Roger Calderon caviled at my being annoyed "When a character keeps forgetting another character's name, no matter how many times he's heard it, so that the audience will know that the first character just doesn't find the other one important." Actually, he didn't necessarily disagree with me there, but he took issue with my specific example: "That's the weakest element of Chicago: Billy Flynn's forgetting Amos Hart's name and constantly calling him 'Andy.' Yes, he does get it right by the show's end, but Billy is too smart to have forgotten the name as many times as Fosse and Ebb made him forget it." Calderon wrote, "I've always seen Billy's doing that as an attempt to smooth talk his way around Amos -- for in the courtroom, when he finally gets Amos' name right, Amos feels appreciated and is more gullible to Billy's shyster moves. That leads to Amos saying that he would take Roxie back and make him believe he's the father of Roxie's baby." Ah, Roger! I have to admit that your observation has never occurred to me, not once through the seven times I saw that scene played in the heavenly original 1975 production or the many more times afterward. And while I think that's a wonderful take on this, I don't believe it was ever Fosse or Ebb's intention -- or any other director's, for that matter. If so, wouldn't we have seen at least a suppressed gleam in Billy Flynn's eye when the ruse worked? What's more, I say that Fosse and the other afore-alluded-to directors have made Billy seem truly distracted whenever he calls Amos "Andy." But I'll tell you this, Roger: If I were directing a production of Chicago tomorrow, I'd use your idea.

Both Frank Soldo and Allen Neuner took issue with my complaint about "When, in a movie musical, a man is sitting at the piano playing and singing to a woman -- then he suddenly gets up to sing the song without playing, and the piano keeps going. Then, inevitably, an orchestra even joins in. " Soldo wrote, "Considering that the whole idea of breaking out into song is a musical theater convention to begin with, why can't the orchestra swell when the emotions grow? If a song can come at the moment emotions grow too big for normal speech, why can't an orchestra or dance grow out of a similar moment? Sure, it would be out of place in your typical Sondheim show, but in an Astaire or Kelly film, it is musical comedy heaven!" Meanwhile, Neuner asked, "What's wrong with a young woman arriving, suitcases in hand, walking through the streets of New York looking at all the bright lights and tall buildings. She starts to sing and, inevitably, an orchestra joins in, as do all the passers-by. (They all may even dance in the street.) That's the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie and part of the 'N.Y.C.' number from Annie. If I recall correctly, that's part of the 'willing suspension of disbelief' that is inherent in watching musicals -- that people will burst into song and go into their dance, with unseen musicians providing the accompaniment and everyone else on stage joining in."

Sure, guys -- I'll grant each of you of those points. But I was talking about a very specific type of number, one called "diegetic." That's the term used for a song where the characters in the musical are actually singing and know it -- most always in a performing setting like a theater or nightclub -- and other characters on-stage hear it as a song. Some examples are "Honey Bun" in South Pacific (Nellie performs on stage for servicemen), "Baby June and Her Newsboys" in Gypsy (the kids are doing a number for a vaudeville audience), and the first airing of "One" in A Chorus Line (the gypsies are practicing the number from the musical they hope to do).

Non-diegetic songs are true book songs, where characters sing instead of speaking and only the audience in the actual theater watching the show are aware that they're singing. "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler, "Don't Look at Me" from Follies, "Master of the House" in Les Misérables, and literally thousands of other songs are non-diegetic. They outnumber the diegetic by dozens-to-one. By the way, a diegetic song is one that can be played on a phonograph in a scene, the way the record of "Married" is used in the movie of Cabaret. But in the stage Cabaret, "Married" is a non-diegetic song; it's part of the book, as Herr Schultz is ruminating on what he wants to be.

When a man in a musical sings a love song to someone out of the blue in a non-diegetic, book situation, I have no problem. But when a guy sits at the piano and starts playing, now it's a diegetic song, for he knows he's singing instead of speaking -- and the person listening is hearing it as a song, and not as dialogue. Thus, when the guy gets up from the piano and the piano continues playing and an orchestra joins in, too, I start to laugh.

Not every reader wrote in to complain -- at least, not about me. Joseph Gaken expressed a beef he has with one specific show: "As much as I love Carousel," he wrote, "there is a logistical time element which bothers me. At the point when 'June is Bustin' Out All Over' is sung, Julie and Billy have known each other for three months. This indicates that they met sometime at the end of February or the beginning of March. That means they met outside in late winter in Maine at an outdoor activity and are walking around in summertime apparel. Please correct me if I'm wrong." I don't think you are, Joe -- and good for you for paying such rapt attention.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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