In theater, each “save” is unique unto itself, yet each represents a moment of quick, panic-driven inspiration to cover up a missed cue, forgotten line, late entrance or technical malfunction.
For Julie Ballantyne Brown, viral-induced laryngitis caused a moment of panic when she tried to sing her solo, as one of the Liebeslieder Singers, at the start of the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” in 2013 at the Players Guild of Dearborn.
“I was fighting a rotten virus the second weekend, and I tried not to talk much when I was wasn’t acting, but my voice was going,” Brown said. “I barely made it through Act I, and didn’t say a word during intermission.”
However, when she went to sing in the second act, nothing happened.
“Nothing came out of my mouth – not a sound, not even a squeak,” Brown said. “I was horrified, but then Shardai Davis jumped right in and started singing my part for me with Jillian Drapala, while I just stood there and tried to smile.”
Davis sang Brown’s part for the rest of Sunday matinee, earning her deep gratitude.
During the same show, Brown witnessed another quick save when an actor playing a servant entered a scene in character to fix a broken prop.
“We used an antique car prop, pushed halfway on stage, with actors inside it for the scene,” she said. “One night, as it was being pushed on, one of the front tires came off, and without missing a beat, Inez Hernandez, who was playing a servant in the chorus, ran onstage and fixed the wheel of the car. He did it so seamlessly, the audience thought it was part of the show.”
Sometimes in a musical, an actor’s voice will be in fine form, but the lyrics will disappear from mind when most needed, as they did for Bob Stromberg when he was performing Harold Hill’s “Trouble” song from “The Music Man” with the University of Michigan a’Mazing Blue Show Choir.
“Midway through that very wordy song, with the rest of the cast bobbing and singing, ‘Trouble, trouble, trouble,’ I reckon I got a bit cocky, and I lost my lines and couldn’t find my way back into the second verse,” he said. “I am looking desperately for help from my actor friends, who know all the words of this famous song, as well as 75 percent of the audience, when finally, a dresser in the wings saw me struggling, and whispered – well, kind of yelled – the next few words from verse two, ‘Not a wholesome trotting race, no.’”
That was enough to put Stromberg back on track, and he finished the number.
“A huge save, and forever grateful for my angel in the wings,” he said.
During another show, a person in the wings was much less helpful.
When Lavinia Hart, an associate professor of theater at Wayne State University, was Titania in a 1980 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Attic Theater in Detroit, she heard her cue, and was waiting for a stage hand to open a heavy fire door for her entrance, when nothing happened.
“I whispered urgently, ‘Open the door,’ while she calmly said, ‘No, I didn’t hear the cue,’” Hart said. “I said, ‘Open the damn door,’ and she said, ‘No.’ I said ‘Open the door or you’re fired.’”
The stagehand opened the door, and Hart, as Titania, charged to center stage with her retinue of faeries, where Oberon and his followers were in a waiting pose, ready for battle.
Oberon’s next line?
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,” he said, which reportedly brought down the house, since, in this usage, “ill” meant “unlucky,” and “proud” means stubborn, both of which were applicable.
“I didn’t fire the stage hand, but we did reassign her,” Hart said.
During another show, a frantic wave from the wings helped save a scene.
When Leo Babcock was playing the King of Siam in “The King and I,” he had a scene in the second act in which he picked up two little girls, who were playing twins, and held one on each hip. However, one of the little girls, who was 4 years old, was either nervous or had a full bladder, and she had an accident while being held.
“Having an open shirt made the sensation all the more vivid,” Babcock said. “If you are going to be peed upon on stage, you’ll really get the full effect on bare skin.”
When the scene was over, and he dashed off stage to clean up and change into his next costume, a dressing gown, for his death scene, the stage manager cued the curtain and lights before Babcock made it back onstage.
“As the scene opened, the audience saw a huge grieving family around an empty bed,” he said. “What I saw backstage, as I looked on in horror, was my death scene starting without me.”
Hanging on to his royal persona even from the wings, Babcock summoned the actors playing his guards, who were on stage, to come to him in the wings, to escort him onstage.
“What a save – they were able to support me as I staggered on with my final steps and made it to my deathbed to complete my dying breath,” he said. “There was not a dry eye in the house. Not all were wearing dry pants, either.”
Another actor had to cover for the costume-delayed entrance of his fellow cast members.
When Alan Ball was playing Max Detweiler in “The Sound of Music,” in the scene following the wedding, he was supposed to run in with a playbill, announcing that he had entered the family in a music festival. However, the Von Trapp children were delayed changing from their wedding clothes into their costumes for the next scene.
“So, when I ran in, waving the program, and yelling, ‘Kids, kids,’ no one entered,” he said. “I shouted again, and again, and nothing happened. I looked straight at the audience and said, ‘I’m beginning to think that whistle was a good idea!’”
After a solid round of laughter from the audience, the Von Trapp children finally started arriving on stage.
And then there’s the story of an audience member who ended up onstage – intentionally.
When the Players Guild of Dearborn was doing “The Lion in Winter” in 1982, the actress playing Princess Alais did not show up for the performance.
Frantic phone calls were made, but she was nowhere to be found.
Moments before curtain, a Guild member, Nancy Wolter, who was familiar with the show, but who didn’t know the lines, walked in the door, and agreed to play the role with script in hand. Luckily, she had the same slim build as the errant actress, so she could fit into the period costumes.
“The audience was told, and the show started 45 minutes late,” long time member Rich Bulleri, who was working tech on the show, said. “Nancy Wolter was great, and got a standing ovation. A theater save, indeed!”