The Show Must Go On

Thursday, December 01, 2016 - 12:00 AM

(YouTube screen capture)

The other day I was seated on the #5 bus in Manhattan as it was ensnared in the epic traffic jam that is now part of life in New York in the shadow of the Trump Tower. I’d read every word of the magazine I had with me. I read e-mails, social media and online newspapers on my smartphone until it ran low on battery charge.

I allowed my thoughts to wander and suddenly heard, in my mind’s ear, the Johnny Mercer song “Accentuate the Positive”, a hymn to the American ideal of looking on the bright side, spreading joy up to the maximum and bringing gloom down to the minimum.

None of this moved the bus forward. Soon my thoughts became more despairing and I thought of the famous words from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:  “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” This declaration of fortitude in the face of uncertainty can be interpreted as a bleak existential hell or an assertion of the human spirit in the face Sisyphean adversity. After pondering this conundrum, I went back to my phone and found a bit of breaking news from Italy’s La Repubblica.

In Milan, soprano Kristin Lewis had fainted onstage at La Scala late in the performance of Porgy and Bess in which she co-starred with bass Morris Robinson. According to this report, Lewis felt unwell and lost consciousness for a few minutes. The curtain could not be lowered because she lay at the spot where it would land. Lewis was treated by a doctor in full view of the audience. She recovered quickly and told the audience, in English, "I'm fine. The show must go on" and completed the performance, leaving for New York with Sportin' Life and sending the confused but determined Porgy to declare, "I'm on my way" and leave Catfish Row to find her.

I confess that, on the marooned Fifth Avenue bus, reading about Ms. Lewis’s gumption and can-do attitude really lifted my spirits and made me proud of her and Robinson, two fine American artists showing the best of our country (along with American conductor Alan Gilbert) in Italy.

The ineffable desire to keep going forward, even when such a thing seems impossible, is a basic human trait but is particularly characteristic of us Americans for whom optimism is part of our national creed. This belief has gotten us through many difficult times but also means that we sometimes endure for the sake of enduring rather than trying to understand or figure out how to make things work better. We need to draw lessons from what happens but don’t always seek to do so.

That said, the venerable theatrical tradition of “the show must go on” speaks of a very particular approach among most American performing artists. Such was the case during the Porgy and Bess at La Scala. I have worked in many theaters in Europe and, when I hear local people assess the skills of Americans, they say, in effect, that we may not all have European opera languages or traditions in our blood, yet we bring more versatility, willingness to work hard and great spontaneity when thing sometimes might go wrong in a live performance. I would only add that many Americans assiduously learn the languages and traditions while some artists mistakenly assume that being born in Italy, Germany, Austria, Russia, the Czech Republic or France automatically gives them a mastery of their nation’s culture.

The second article I published in this space, on March 23, 2011, was entitled “Must the Show Go On?” It dealt with the choices performers and arts executives make in the face of unforeseen circumstances such as tsunamis, earthquakes, the death of an audience member or if an impassioned audience member throws the ashes of his dead friend into an orchestra pit. Take a few minutes to read my article from five years ago for context.

Carol Channing, who said that “center stage is the safest place in the world,” is a famous exponent of “the show must go on.” She performed the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! more than 5,000 times, sometimes with a high fever as well as some chronic medical conditions. She, along with Ethel Merman and American opera singers such Roberta Peters, Marilyn Horne, Richard Tucker, Sherrill Milnes and Samuel Ramey, were troupers.

Watch Channing, age 44, sing the title song in Hello, Dolly! with the original Broadway cast in 1965, the year after the show opened. 

Then watch her in London in 1979 at the age of 58. And in a U.S. revival in 1994, the lyric “Wow, wow, wow fellas, look at the old girl now fellas!” took on new meaning even though Channing’s performance made few concessions to age and the fact that she had played the role thousands of times.

Not every performer subscribes to this tradition. I am thinking of the viewpoint of a rather famous American singer and actress, no longer with us, who was a close friend. She believed in not going on if she did not feel her best because she said audiences would recall her as being less good than people expected. She also felt she would be less likely to be hired for new jobs if she did not sound great than if she was deemed an unreliable canceller. I take her point, one that some other artists share, but admire those artists whose talents and drive make them cultural first responders at a moment in which their performances and examples are so uplifting.

A very famous show-must-go-on moment came on April 9, 2011. Juan Diego Flórez was scheduled to sing the title role in Le Comte Ory at the Met in a live international HD transmission to begin at 1 p.m. That morning his wife went into labor and, along with two midwives, the tenor delivered his son Leandro at 12:25 p.m. He held the baby for a minute then dashed to the opera house and gave a spirited performance that brought down the house. 

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Comments [6]

Geo. from St. Louis, MO

Yes, the show should ideally go on, when it's scheduled, for the sake of the audience who made the effort to show up. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the particular performer set for that performance must give the performance no matter what, if circumstances dictate otherwise. To flip Sammy from Melbourne's idea to its opposite extreme, one occasion where a performer is certainly excused, if not morally obliged, to skip the performance involves the birth of a child. Of course, for female artists in the family way, it's a given that she will not be (or should not be) on stage or in concert when the big moment comes. For male partners/spouses whose female partner/spouse is about to have a child, it is eminently wise to be present for the birth. I read somewhere about conductor Kurt Masur that he said that the biggest mistake of his life was missing the birth of one of his children, because of an orchestral concert engagement of his. I believe also that Bryn Terfel missed the birth of one of this sons, again because of a performance commitment. I can easily imagine that Mr. Terfel dearly regrets missing that birth. In other words, as much as we here love the arts and live performance, sometimes, other things really are more important.

Dec. 02 2016 11:26 AM
Nick from Tampa

The show must go on, indeed. I attended a Tampa Opera performance of Aida, when the lead soprano inhaled a piece of confetti from the earlier Grand March scene, and this during her final aria in the tomb! The curtain came down, but shortly after, the curtain rose with her still on stage, but the lead mezzo finished the aria from the wings! An example of singing two roles in the same opera, but on stage for one!

Dec. 02 2016 08:24 AM
Houston Bernard from Boston,MA,USA

I appreciate for your spirit i must say show must go on, whether there is any problem come around you don't need worry about it. Believe in yourself and go on, whatever the circumstances.

Dec. 02 2016 03:13 AM
Robert Swann from Dallas, Texas

Dallas, my hometown, is remembered for a show that did not go on. The Dallas Civic Opera, as it was known in 1963, had scheduled a new production of Un ballo in maschera, an opera inspired by the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. The opera was to open on the evening of November 22nd, the day President Kennedy's visit to Dallas ended in tragedy.

As artistic director of a long running jazz concert series in Dallas, I have plenty of stories of shows that did go on despite adverse circumstances. Sometimes, going on is as much a bid for life as an act of dedication to one's art. A singer I know, the first call jazz baritone in the region, dreams of singing at Lincoln Center. I believe that he would have made it years ago but for decades of addiction. Two summers ago, he borrowed a phone from a passerby to ask me for help. He wanted to make a show that had been on his calendar for months. When I found him at a notorious crossroads, he reeked of days on the street in July temperatures. His fresh clothes were in a room he rented in Fort Worth. He couldn't remember when he had last paid on the room. We drove to Fort Worth, where I paid the balance on the room and helped him clean up for the Dallas show. That night, he gave as inspired a performance as I have ever heard from him. In every aspect of his appearance, he positively gleamed. No one in the audience would have guessed where he had awakened that morning, or where he would sleep that night. At his insistence, I dropped him off where I had picked him up. Three days later, his white linen suit hung on him like so many soiled rags. Things got worse before they got better.

Now he's in rehab. I'm dropping off his clothing and supplies tomorrow. His release date is the 9th of May. He tells me he'll be released in the morning. That's good. He'll have a little time to rest and clean up before the show that night.

The show simply must go on. It is as much a matter of life and death as life, and death.

Dec. 01 2016 09:24 PM
Virginia Hartman from BethLehem

When I went into labor with my daughter, Vernon was on tour with the Boston Lyric Opera. His

Cover ended up in the hospital with the flu and he had to do that mornings performance.
Vern chartered a plane and made it home for her birth. The next day he flew back to Boston
For the evening performance and congrats ffrom Sarah Caldwell.

Dec. 01 2016 11:41 AM
Sammy from Melbourne, Australia

You know, I think there's also something to be said about the rag-tag, often impoverished nature of artists through the century that led to this mentality. A few years ago, my grandmother passed away during the run of a play in which I was performing. To attend the funeral (hundreds of kilometres away) would have required the show to be cancelled for at least 3, if not 4, performances over a sold-out weekend, as there were no understudies, and no capacity to bring in someone else at that stage. For me, it was barely a consideration - the show came first; it always has done. It didn't detract from my love for my grandmother (and thankfully it's the only funeral of note I've missed) but I was raised to believe that the obligation to the stage was paramount. Nevertheless, several theatre friends of mine - in their 20s - found the idea somewhat shocking. I was surprised to learn that they had grown up seeing theatre as, really, just a thing they did when they wanted to; not something they needed to. That's why I hope the "show must go on" mentality survives. It's something in those nights spent with cheap wine and gossip after a show, that disconnect between the world of performers and the world of the audience, that certain feeling only shared by those who work in the theatre.

Dec. 01 2016 05:08 AM

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