I wrote the first version of this article back in 2006 after the eighth time I had seen the musical Wicked. By now, I’ve seen Wicked thirteen times in at least four different productions. My intent for this post was to answer the question, “Why would anyone see the same show so many times?”
The simple answer is that live theatre is different every time. It’s not like a movie or a television show. Since those mediums are filmed, the finished product is pretty much a done deal. Multiple viewings of movies and television shows certainly may allow the viewer to notice different things, but the performances, content, and other elements don’t change.
In live theatre, many details about a performance can—and do—change for each viewing because every actor is different, sometimes roles are played by different actors in the same production (i.e., rotating actors or understudies), and even the same actor can play a scene differently for each performance. The more times you see a show, the more details you will likely notice. In the case of a musical, there are additional elements to compare since there is singing, dancing, and an orchestra in addition to acting and the technical aspects of the production.
In my original article, I presented the following examples after having seen the same production of Wicked on back-to-back days. I had already seen the show six times before presenting these examples so I had a fair amount of context and background knowledge behind these observations. Even after ten years, I remember these differences:
- In one of the performances, the actor who played Fieyro delivered a pivotal line early in the show in a manner that gave away a major plot point. During the scene when Glinda references Eva Perón (alla Evita) and declares a celebration, Fieyro says, “of course I will marry you…” But in another performance, he stressed, “of course I will marry you.”
- The audio mix can sound quite different from show to show. In many contemporary musicals, rock instruments such as synthesizer, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum set are scored for the pit orchestra. In this performance, the electric guitar and bass were extremely prominent. In the soundtrack, these instruments are at times difficult to hear. The perception of the audio mix can also be affected by where one sits in a theatre. In this performance at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, I sat right-side orchestra, under the loge. I have often noticed that sitting directly under the loge or mezzanine greatly enhances the sound in this theatre. Closer to the stage, some of the sound gets lost by going straight up, but under the loge, it bounces back at you and sounds fuller.
- This performance had an unfortunate technical issue which did not detract from the show—unless you knew that it was supposed to be there. The set features a giant mechanical dragon (the time dragon) over the stage that articulates, lights up its red eyes, and spews forth smoke at key points in the show. I’m not sure if the time dragon was broken or if the puppeteers missed their cues, but the absence of the dragon’s movements were conspicuous for these performances.
- Casting is like technology—it’s a generally problem when it doesn’t work. In this case, I was surprised how the physical build of some of the actors affected the story for me. First, Fieryo—a “handsome prince” character—who is usually cast as tall and athletic, was neither. Also, Boq, who plays a munchkin, was too tall for a munchkin (he was played by an understudy in one of the performances). Boq was distractingly taller than Nessarose, with whom he is coupled throughout most of the show. While I certainly understand that all actors are different, this performance illustrated to me that looks and builds matter in casting.
- Speaking of understudies, I’ve seen my fair share. In the majority of cases I can remember, the understudy is just as good—if not better—than the regular actor cast in the role. In this performance, Elphaba, played by understudy Dee Roscioli, was excellent. Her lower register was the most impressive of any of the performers I’ve ever seen in the role, and she brought an attitude that I’d not seen in past performances. She especially nailed the song “Popular” with her “toss toss” antics.
- And speaking of “Popular,” this scene has come to be performed differently in each production, and sometimes varies by performance. Each Glinda I’ve seen uses this song to showcase her interpretation of the character. I’ve seen a spectrum of improvised (and likely intentional) overacting—to by-the-book performances that sounded close to the soundtrack with little additional interest. This is a great example of a scene that can be different every time it’s performed.
Spotting these differences likely requires that an audience member be as much a fan of the theatre genre as I. If you are not, you have likely stopped reading long before now—or believe that I am way too into this. You may be correct. In any event, my hope is that these examples have supported my notion that one reason that the musical theatre experience is interesting and engaging is due to the inherent spontaneity of the performances. The same show in is never performed the same way twice.