Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grand theatrical traditions

I've added two shows to my spring Broadway schedule: Passing Strange and Macbeth. They've both gotten raves and I'm excited about seeing them. But I didn't realize I'd also be picking up two new theatrical superstitions in the process.

Until I saw a short video clip on the New York Times Web site, I had no idea that once inside the theater, you're only supposed to refer to Macbeth as "the Scottish play," lest the production suffer all sorts of bad luck.

Then, since I've never been to the Belasco, I wanted to read up on the the theater that's currently home to Passing Strange, and found that it's haunted. There's an actual ghost on the premises. And somehow, I don't think he's a friendly little guy like Casper either!

Now, my only acting experience has been a drama class I took in junior high school. I know you're supposed to tell an actor to "break a leg" instead of "good luck," but I really have no idea why. Haunted theaters and names you're never supposed to utter are all pretty new to me. Well, except for this one.

Here's what my in-depth Internet research turned up:

Break a leg: While I've heard this phrase, I never knew where it originated. Like "the Scottish play," there are lots of theories. One theory is that it's a translation of a German phrase for good luck brought to America by German and Yiddish speaking Jews in the early 20th century. Perhaps it was simply a way for performers to avoid tempting fate, or reverse psychology, using bad luck to ensure good luck.

My favorite explanation is that the phrase stems from actors' having to bend their leg at the knee when they take a bow at the curtain call. Hoping that someone breaks a leg is a way of wishing that the audience will be so enthusiastic, the actors will be forced to take lots of bows - although hopefully not to the point that anyone actually does break a leg.

The Scottish play: One explanation goes that the incantation of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth casts an actual spell. Another theory goes that because of the swordplay, there's a greater chance for an actor to be injured. Supposedly, a long list of mishaps have befallen productions of MacBeth.

The most likely explanation is that Macbeth was such a popular work, it was often performed out of desperation by theater companies that were on the verge of going under. So adding it to your lineup at the end of the season was a sign that you were in big trouble. Best not to mention the name at all. "Macbeth often presaged the end of a company's season, and would frequently be a portent of the company's demise. Therefore, the fear of Macbeth was generally the fear of bad business and of an entire company being put out of work."

The Belasco ghost: David Belasco was an actor, playwright and theatrical impresario. (I love that word! Do they still exist? Is it the type of thing you'd put on your business card?) Belasco, who lived from 1853 to 1931, wrote, produced and directed more than 100 Broadway plays. He had two theaters in New York. The one that bears his name today, at 111 W. 44th St., opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre. Belasco renamed the theater for himself in 1910.

According to the Belasco's Web site, after his death, the ghost of David Belasco was rumored to haunt the theater. Actors and stagehands claimed to see the spirit in Belasco's private box on opening night, scowling if he didn't like the show. Supposedly, the ghost hasn't been seen since the 1970s, when it was driven out by the nudity in Oh Calcutta!

So it appears that the only ghost I'll be seeing will be Banquo's. I don't actually believe in ghosts, and I'm not very superstitious. Still, just in case David Belasco does show up, I'm keeping their number handy. I mean, who would you call?


mitch mcguire said...

Esther: Your research missed a couple of salient facts. Mr. Belasco had an apartment atop the Belasco and had a private elevator and giggles were often heard, it was said, during shows as he took female conquests up to his digs. When the Belasco was sold to the Shuberts (?), the interior woodwork was dontated/sold to Sardis and still exists as part of a room there upstairs.
As to Oh Calcutta chasing away ghosts, I was in Oh Calcutta and I didn't hear his ghost or giggles so maybe you are right. It was a great theatre for that show and many others, but before Oh Calcutta I know there was that rock show, the name of which excapes me, that Tim Curry was in and that became a legend of sorts, but I imagine David Belasco might not have liked that show either so he may have been long gone. or even gone when they took his apartment to 44th Street. I suggest you hold a seance to determine his intentions. He may want to explain it all himself. I would love to be there.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Great post and very informative. And that little "rock show" Mr. McGuire mentioned was the original, short-lived production of The Rocky Horror Show back in 1975.

I'll be very, very careful when I see The Scottish Play daring not to speak its real title....

Esther said...

Mr. McGuire, thanks for the comment and the additional information! As a relatively new Broadway theatergoer it's fun to research this stuff, learn about all the history behind the theaters. I've been upstairs at Sardi's, so I've seen the woodwork. Next time, I'll definitely take a closer look.

Maybe Stew can hold a seance some night during "Passing Strange" to conjure up the ghost of David Belasco! ;-)

And wow, that's very cool that you were in "Oh Calcutta." I wish I could have seen it! What was it like performing in that theater?

Esther said...

Thanks Steve, for the compliment and the additional information!

I'm sure David Belasco's ghost would have been equally scandalized by "Rocky Horror" as it surely was by "Oh Calcutta!" Or maybe not. I like to think he would have changed with the times and had a good sense of humor! Anyway, if he's still there, I'm sure he's enjoying "Passing Strange."

Yes, we'll have to be very, very careful. We don't want to anger the theater gods or Patrick Stewart!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

....especially Patrick Stewart!

SarahB said...

And some are saying that The Merm is haunting the current revival of Gypsy at the St. James. Regardless, watch out for falling objects.

Caroline said...

Superstition is such an important part of theater. How many actors have certain rituals they do before going on stage??? Great post!

Esther said...

Sarah, I will definitely be looking up at the ceiling every once in awhile! Although you would hope the St. James has gone through the theater pretty thoroughly after the unfortunate accident.

Esther said...

Thanks Caroline! I guess everyone is superstitious to a certain extent. We all have our little rituals. I'm sure athletes have them, too. But there does seem to be a lot of superstition connected with the theater! Maybe part of it is that it's such an ancient art form. There's been a long time for the stories to accumulate. It's kind of interesting to read the story behind the story, like the origin of "break a leg."

mitchny said...

Esther: YOu asked what it was like doing Oh Calcutta there...well we had done the show for a couple of years at the "Eden" Theater which was an old Burlesque house on 2nd Ave and 12th Street so going to B'way meant an increase in salary and we were happy to be in midtown. I loved that theater and still do. I saw that WWI play there last year and the sound at the end I was afraid would bring down the ceiling.
Anyway, I stayed Oh Cal for about a year and a half. When we arrived at the Belasco one of the pit musicians was Peter Schickle and he'd written a new song for a new finale that he and the other musicians, Stan Walden and Bob Dennis and the director, Jacques Levy had put together. Peter handed me this sheet music that he wanted me to sing in the new finale, so I was thrilled. Unfortunetly that finale never really jelled so the old finale went back in. But I have that sheet music still in my possession. When I left OCC was still running at the Belasco.
There is a DVD of the show and I am in it, but the producers and AFTRA are in negotiations to get us some dough so don't buy it until I and AFTRA get this settled. I don't want to enrich them unless they share in the profits...they released this without our permission.

Esther said...

Wow, thank-you very much for the background. Since I posted this, I did make it to the Belasco, for "Passing Strange," and I love the theater. I was sitting in the orchestra, near the back, but it's so intimate that I had a terrific view. And I will definitely wait before picking up the "Oh Calcutta" dvd. I absolutely believe in artists getting their fair share of profits.