Admittedly, I grew up surrounded by real professional entertainers—almost unwittingly, I suppose. What child, at eight years of age, realizes that only a professionally produced dance recital runs seamlessly between acts, with musical segues keeping one dance routine flowing into the next? For me, that was the norm; it wouldn’t make sense to stop the show after every number and reset the stage—what a waste of time!
By the time I reached high school, the precedent for stage performances was already set. I had tap-danced for ten years at Ken and Jean’s Dance Studio, where we were all expected to match our tights, shoes, and hairstyles as identically as we tried to match our movements on stage. Hair was always tied back in a bun; it looked sloppy and unprofessional if you let it hang in your face. Bangs were pinned back, flyaways sprayed down. When your dance was over, you had the first ten seconds of the next song to exit the stage (in choreographed synchrony, because you were still onstage!) while the next class entered. This was simply how things were supposed to be done—efficiently, effectively, and above all, with a smile.
Therefore, it was not real shock (although perhaps it should have been) to find that my high school musicals were run with the same regimented attention to detail and efficiency. Sets were built to absolute specification. Scene changes were executed flawlessly, without pause, so as not to interrupt the show. Our director hired a professional soundboard operator, paid various musicians to supplement the students in the pit orchestra, rented lighting equipment we didn’t have, and employed a team of volunteer mothers to tailor and even sew-from-scratch costumes to fit the cast. Truly, no detail was too minute. The result was a legacy of outstanding performances. Year after year, from Jesus Christ Superstar to Seussical, the high school produced one award-winning performance after another. It was only when I began to attend some of our rival schools’ musicals did I realize how unusual my school’s program really was. Closing the curtain between scenes? Having stage crew members come on stage to move the set? Anachronistic costumes? These things just seemed unacceptable to me, until what was repeated over and over again to me by my mother sunk in: our high school musicals were produced on a professional level. Other high school musicals were just that—high school musicals.
All of this reflection leads me to an experience I had recently, of being part of a live audience at the filming of the television show America’s Got Talent. Now, understandably, this was no Broadway show. The admission was free—tickets were given out by lottery online and then admission was granted on a first come, first serve basis—presumably in order to generate the largest crowd possible. However, I did have some expectations. After all, these were professionals, filming a show that would be televised on a national network. They were all working people trying to do a job—why wouldn’t they want to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible?
In the beginning, as the “hype man” went around trying to be funny and entertaining, I tried to be positive. Yes, I was willing to concede, a little audience coaching at this point is probably helpful. However, after an hour of pointless, “Right side cheer! Left side cheer! Okay everybody scream! Clap softly. Loudly! Everyone from Brooklyn cheer! From Manhattan! From New Jersey!” I genuinely felt stupider. Sitting through this grade-school type entertainment was flat-out demeaning, never mind boring.
Then, finally, the show started. All right, I thought, second chance. It turned out to be pretty much what I expected—a less impressive knockoff of American Idol featuring people who not only sing, but hula hoop, hang from trapezes, and unicycle while singing. Just like on AI, some acts were impressive, others horrific. I wasn’t so much horrified by the actual quality of the acts, however—because the show obviously screens everyone and intentionally features people who will make complete fools of themselves—as much as I was how long it took the stage crew to change the set between acts. How long does it really take to put a keyboard on stage or to fix two strands David Hasselhoff’s hair? (For those of you who don’t watch the show, Hasselhoff is one of the judges, along with Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne.) The answer, at least according to these guys, is fifteen minutes. Literally every two or three acts, the show would stop for at least fifteen to twenty minutes, during which time the “hype guy” would have to go around saying stupid things, trying to get the audience to stay awake enough to remain in their seats but not impatient enough to walk out the door.
Filming was slated to begin at 6p.m. By 9:15p.m., I had had more than enough. I was thoroughly disgusted by the lack of efficiency by which this show seemed to operate (these were professionals! getting paid!), never mind irritated by the swarms of junior high and high school aged students who seemed to radiate an aura of annoyingness. (Maybe these were my memories of being annoyed by my younger sister resurfacing, or maybe all the screaming over every warbly note uttered onstage had finally gotten to me—Americans are so ignorant!) I had to leave. On my way out, I picked up my cell phone, which the security officers had confiscated at the door. (You would think I might have learned how to hide contraband effectively, having attended high school with this sort of daily security, but to no avail; we never got patted down in high school.) Finally out on the sidewalk, I turned to the friend who had initially invited me, hoping to commiserate. However, one look at her face showed that she did not feel nearly the same level of disgust that I felt. I kept my thoughts to myself. Until now, of course.