We attend the theatre to be enchanted, entertained, and to view some real, raw talent. Most importantly, we expect to be taken away into another world and only face reality during intermission. Since anything can happen during a live performance, it’s likely that illusion will be compromised. Flubs are an inevitable fact of the theatre, live broadcasts, and anything with a real audience that can either create an even more special memory or completely ruin the experience.
We hear all the time about a show the previous night that included an actor forgetting a line or a piece of the set collapsing either resulting in the curtain dropping for a few minutes or the talented performers playing it off somehow only slightly breaking the fourth wall. Being taken out of the performance in any way that wasn’t intended by the writers is not a good sign for the show. Remembering you’re in a theatre by accidentally seeing a crew member with their headset on running frantically backstage or enduring an awkward few-second pause when a star is waiting for the spotlight to hit them is enough to get you to reflect on where you are and distract you from the show.
The fact that these mistakes have the power to grow an even stronger connection with an audience while also yielding the power to disconnect the audience for the entire night is the oddity that can be dissected with a few examples.
The most prevalent case of this in 2017 is Bette Midler starring in Hello Dolly. There have been multiple accounts   of Bette seemingly forgetting lines or flubbing and proceeding to break the fourth wall to joke about it with the audience. Keep in mind, I have never been in a theatre where the audience was so in love with a leading lady. She has been growing a rapport with her fans for decades and at the end of the day she could go up there and do just about anything to still receive the praise she’s used to.
The matinée I attended on May 6, 2017, included two flubs — one being an understandable technical difficulty resulting in a few minutes of the curtain dropped and one during the famous dinner scene where our prima donna pauses, forgets a line, turns to us and yells, "That’s live theatre, folks!" Of course, everyone cheers, laughs, and feels they just grew more of a kinship with Bette Midler, but it took me out of the performance. I understand (and paid for) the substantiality of the performers in this show, but some argue that doesn’t make it okay to treat this as a concert. 
While Midler has the power to play off her mishaps in her own way and still win over her audience, not every performer with a smaller following has the luxury. In these cases, much more creativity is required to keep everyone pleased. Brad Schreiber writes in Stop the Show! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater about a time when the witch was removing Rapunzel’s hair in Into the Woods but accidentally removed the entire wig. An honest mistake that could have been made by anyone solved only by someone with the quick and clever improvisation skills to say, "Now the prince will never love you because he knows you’re not a real blonde!"
Although swallowing some dignity for the fourth wall is necessary in some situations to salvage a flub, it’s even appropriate when the character dances on the fourth wall in the first place. That’s exactly what happened during Disneyland’s performance of Aladdin when the Genie’s goatee falls off. Genie, already filled with cultural references and pop culture improvisation, is exactly the right character for a flub to occur on so they can play with it in a way that doesn’t take anyone out of the performance but also creates a unique experience for them.
Sometimes things are unplanned and by the fault of no one at all that leaves everyone with a fond memory at the theatre. During a performance of The Producers starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, a coat was thrown across the stage and without anyone immediately aware it landed perfectly on the coatrack. Obviously, this led to great cheers and fanfare from the excited audience that now share a special nugget of theatre magic with the cast.
Some would argue there’s a special charm that you can only get from the stage when people play inside jokes or take advantage of the very fact that things are live. Andy Karl prominently showing off his leg brace during Groundhog Day knowing half the audience and his closer following fans would understand he got the wound while in that very show isn’t disrupting anyone who doesn’t care about the actor’s history. It’s unobtrusive and entertaining enough for those in the know. The subtle nature of some of these scenarios are ultimately harmless unless they get so out of hand that people suffer.
Bette Midler took full advantage of the stage during the 71st Tony Awards when she went a few minutes over during her acceptance speech after winning for the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical — possibly paying homage to Patti LuPone’s Gypsy acceptance speech. Although it’s not a flub, unlike the catastrophe that occurred during the 89th Academy Awards Best Picture announcement, it’s a unique moment of live entertainment that stands out. Some might think Bette is an attention-hogging diva while others will argue she can do whatever she wants because she’s Bette Midler.
Whether the flubs are constructed, purely accidental, inevitable, or the result of certain performers or environments, they all create something special. While some might be distracted, taken out of the performances, or angry, others will be delighted, excited, and will feel special they got to experience something someone else did not during the same show. In the words of Bette Midler, that’s live theatre, folks!
- https://www.reddit.com/r/Broadway/comments/6gt2j3/unprofessionalism_from_broadway_divas/ ↩︎
- https://www.reddit.com/r/Broadway/comments/71dhmk/so_im_seeing_hello_dolly_and_bette_midler_just/ ↩︎
- I write this while listening to the Hello Dolly revival soundtrack. It’s a great show and I’m only using it as a case study of
mishaps, not reviewing the performance. ↩
Photo by Julieta Cervantes