By Daz Gale
There has been a lot of discourse in recent months over unwanted audience participation in theatre. Many have commented that theatre etiquette has gone out the window and peoples behaviour in the audience has gone seriously downhill. It is fair to say this is more common in a certain type of show – the jukebox musical. A type of show that itself caused debate with many dismissing its value or seeing it as a lesser than piece of theatre. I for one have always been in favour of them with some of my favourite shows falling into the jukebox category, but that is not the reason for this article today.
The debate of whether people should be allowed to sing along during a musical (and let me be clear, it’s not a debate) reared its tuneless voice again this week when Vanessa Feltz gave a tone-deaf opinion on daytime TV show This Morning where she stated she would sing along if she wanted to and would even make up the words if she didn’t know them. Clearly a response deliberately worded to rile people up, it has done just that with Theatre Twitter exploding with anger at not just her careless and selfish words but the response of the presenters Dermot O’Leary (himself soon due to appear on a stage) and Alison Hammond (who had been in a theatre the night before).
For the producers of This Morning, they must be rubbing their hands with glee. To get the show talked about at length on social media is clearly great promotion for them, and they couldn’t have wished for more if they had their presenters jump a queue to see the Queens body. However, words have repercussions and this carelessness has already proved damaging. I wanted to write about two particular things with this post – why you shouldn’t sing along in the theatre (obviously) but also why you have a responsibility with the influence you have. The damage may have already been done but perhaps this can try and balance this terrible take out with something a little bit more logical.
Jukebox musicals are fantastic. They make theatre more accessible and appeal to those who might not have otherwise gone to the theatre. While myself and many other theatre lovers enjoy seeing as much new musical theatre as possible, with the prospect of a brand new show always filling me with excitement (Will I discover a new favourite or even the next big thing?) it can prove harder for the majority of theatre-goers to give a new show a try. With ticket prices increasing, getting bums at seats is growing increasingly more difficult. Therefore, marketing a new musical with an already familiar songbook can be an easy way to sell more tickets. There is something to be said about seeing a show full of songs you already love – the nostalgia factor along can create a warm feeling as it brings back memories. In that respect, jukebox musicals are great and shows like Jersey Boys, Tina and Mamma Mia! Play to packed audiences nightly. Other new jukebox musicals have come along in recent years with The Drifters Girl recently finishing its West End run and The Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud just opening.
The question is why do these type of musicals attract an audience that can’t seem to sing along in their heads rather than out loud? Is it that they don’t realise what they are doing is frowned upon and distracting to those around them or is it that they do know and just don’t care?
We will never be able to get a clear answer to that and it will vary on a case by case basis. However, when we ask the question should singing along be allowed, the answer to that is much clearer.
When you are able to sing along, it will be made clear to you. Most jukebox musicals specifically design an encore to allow the audience to join in and give it their best Cher or Whitney if they so wish. Others like Bat Out Of Hell created special singalong performances – an occasional show designed just for that. In those situations, singing along isn’t just ok – it is actively encouraged. At all other times though, you should leave it to those talented performers on stage giving it their absolute all. No matter if you did a drama GCSE or once auditioned for The X Factor with your best ‘The Winner Takes It All’, if you are sit in the audience, you are there as an audience member and the only sounds that leave your mouth during the show should be cheering for the incredible cast you are witnessing.
So why can’t you sing along during the show? Quite simply, it is distracting for both the cast on stage as well as your fellow audience members. Nobody in that audience has more of a right than anybody else to enjoy the show. Whether you paid more than the person sat behind you is irrelevant. One of the most beautiful aspects of going to the theatre is the community aspect of it, the shared experience. There is something beautiful about a stranger next to you having the same response to a show, or even a completely different response as I myself have experienced. Theatre is escapism and if you take somebody out of that, you are lessening or even ruining the experience for them. To sing along is to put your needs before that of your fellow audience and is, let’s be honest, completely selfish.
Why has audience behaviour become so much worse in the last year? Part of me wonders if the lockdowns have something to do with it. We all went through a terrible ordeal with many of us locked away for months on end, losing loved ones and forgetting how to act around other people. While there were problems in the theatre before lockdowns, it is undeniable things have gotten so much worse since. I liken it to the massive rise in people who blast music out of their phone on public transport with absolutely zero consideration for everyone else around them. To some, there is nothing wrong with that. To others, it can be annoying at best and intimidating at worst. The lack of consideration people have for their fellow humans has been clear to see in theatre in the last year or so and has led to some shows being ruined for me personally.
I am somebody who will ask somebody to be quiet if they are talking or singing along in the theatre. This has got me in trouble on numerous occasions. Several months ago, somebody even threatened me with violence after I politely asked them to be quiet, recently at &Juliet I was physically manhandled by the person behind me and in several instances I have asked to move seats in the interval due to people around me ruining the experience. In these situations, the FOH get the worst end of the stick. I see people commenting why they don’t do more to combat this behaviour – what can they do without risking their own safety? It must be very intimidating when people are acting like that and they are not paid enough as it is without having to deal with it. All they can do is hold signs up managing expectations before the show. Pre-show announcements and signs around the theatre can also help with this.
The show which has caused this topic to come up again is The Bodyguard. Currently touring the UK, it boasts many of the most loved hits by the truly legendary Whitney Houston. However, audience behaviour at this show has been an all time low and I experienced this myself when I saw the show last month at New Wimbledon Theatre. Surprisingly, the singing along on this occasion was few (though I still have flashbacks to the woman who stood up during ‘One Moment In Time’ when the show was at The Dominion Theatre and attempted to match Beverley Knight – let me save you some time, nobody will ever be able to match her). However, the audience behaviour still completely ruined the experience for not just myself but cast members who shared their take on the night with me afterwards. The cause of this was the heckling which included someone shouting “SLUT” at Melody Thornton and someone, perhaps the same terrible person, ruining ‘I Will Always Love You’ with an unnecessary “SING IT BITCH”. The Bodyguard really has seen the worst of it on this tour and I have to feel for the amazing cast, crew and FOH staff who deserve so much better.
After This Morning allowed Vanessa Feltz to spew her selfish opinion, another major incident happened at The Bodyguard the very next day. During the shows final number, people singing along and others telling them to shut up caused an almighty fight which led to police turning up and the show being cancelled prematurely. Coincidence or were they spurred on by this supposedly harmless TV show which told them it was ok to do this?
Photo by @tashalou96
This brings me to my next point – if you have a platform, you have an influence. And with great influence comes great responsibility (Apologies for misquoting Spider-Man). People do watch shows like This Morning and will listen with care to what national treasures like Alison Hammond have to say – so when they respond to Vanessa Feltz by saying they wouldn’t go to see a show if they weren’t allowed to sing along, that has repercussions. To somebody who might never go to the theatre, this tells them not only is it ok to sing along but they actively should. I am asking shows like This Morning to use their platform wisely and realise the damage they are doing by sharing voices like this. To them, it might be clickbait. However, to all who cherish theatre and don’t want to see any harm done to it, it is crushing. The fact they had nobody in theatre there to speak up for why people shouldn’t sing along created a one-sided argument by somebody who never says no to a press night invite (and never sings along herself when I have seen her) and could have sparked a far more balanced conversation had they invited anyone with a slightly different opinion on board.
I should clarify this isn’t an attack on Vanessa Feltz or This Morning. That show does a lot of good for theatre, showcasing new and existing shows with a fantastic platform allowing them to perform and promote theatre. Nor is this an attempt at gate-keeping by saying who should or shouldn’t be allowed in the theatre. Everybody is allowed. Theatre is for everybody. Theatre is one of the most beautiful things in the world and the thing that keeps me sane. I truly believe it should be accessible for all with everybody able to go to a show whenever they so wish (prices are a different issue entirely. Let’s save that discussion for next time). However, the needs of one can’t outweigh the needs of everyone else. We are all there to have a good time. I don’t care if you’re the next Mariah Carey – if I wanted to hear you sing, I’d buy a ticket to see you do karaoke at the local pub.
The fight at The Bodyguard this week wasn’t the first of its kind. I have heard repeated horror stories from the last year with similar incidents at Bat Out Of Hell and The Drifters Girl. Fights can happen at any show – be it a play or musical (jukebox or otherwise). Whether the cause of it is too much alcohol, adrenaline or just being a violent scumbag is irrelevant. The common theme here is a lack of respect. If we could all respect everybody else in the theatre we all have as much right as anybody to enjoy the show. You haven’t bought a ticket for a private showing for you and your friends – you are sat with possibly more than 1000 others, all wanting to go home having loved what they have seen and not had it ruined by one persons actions.
What I am getting it with this long rambling mess is to please be considerate. While you may not realise what you are doing is distracting to others, it can ruin shows altogether. Theatre is magic – let’s all get lost in it together, and have a singsong when we get home, hey? (Apologies to my partner who has to deal with me recreating shows when I get in). As well as this, please think carefully if you have a platform as your seemingly harmless words can do more harm than you can ever realise. Let’s all just continue to love theatre and be thankful we have the opportunity to see so many wonderful shows – let’s not forget this time 2 years ago, theatres were still closed. Let’s continue to see these shows thrive and do nothing to jeopardise them or discourage anyone from seeing them.
If you have read all of this, thank you - and sorry! Once again, theatre is for everyone. Everybody is welcome, no exceptions. Let's just be kind and considerate.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on twitter.com/ATDazzles
See you in the theatre!