For several months now, actually more than a year, many of my fellow theatre artists, theatre colleagues and I have been discussing the, now very popular issue of the unwanted audience participation incidents. 

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. That moment when that one person in the audience starts to sing during a musical number and purposely (or not) tries to outdo the actor on stage. Oh, yes, instances like this have been happening for a long time now. A quick google search shows people discussing the issue as far back as 2015, so it seems this issue has been happening for a long time. Wait, maybe that is not long ago or maybe it is. I don’t know. Since the pandemic everything is in some sort of time warp that is difficult to decipher. 

Anyway, a few years back I went to see a production of West Side Story, and being completely annoyed by a couple of people who started singing “Somewhere” along with the actress on stage. “This isn’t a concert,” I said to myself. “So shut the hell up.” I added as I tried to incinerated them with my gaze. 

That was one incident, long time ago. 

I do think though, that the issue about audience members uninvitingly singing didn’t become such an issue until jukebox musicals came into being. Jukebox musicals made used of very popular songs instead of comparing new songs. Most of the time jukebox musicals are bio-musicals (based on someone famous) such as Tina The Musical, Ain’t Too Proud, or Jersey Boys or used song from a popular album or music group to create a “new story,” such as Mama Mia! Jagged Little Pill, or American Idiot. I’m not putting the blame on jukebox musicals but I do think that the unwanted audience singers phenomenon has become a more unpopular occurrence because of this type of musicals. 

I pause here now to be fully transparent about the fact that I very much dislike jukebox musicals; I do. But I’m not here to talk about that, though this topic merits its own blog entry and I will write about it. Later. 

Since jukebox musicals use pop songs that are well known by most people. And since many of these songs are songs audiences have come to “adore.” Or since many jukebox musicals are based on very popular films that contained very popular songs–Sister Act The Musical–when audiences go to see those musicals, they feel they must sing along with the actors on stage or else. After all, in my opinion, many of these audience members only go to see the musical because it is about their favorite music artist or based on their favorite film. And because these people have a “personal connection” to the song(s) they feel they have to sing their hearts out, when their songs are being performed on stage. In Manchester, England, for example, an incident of such behavior happened during the production of the musical “The Bodyguard.” The performance of the show had to be cut short, the police called, and an audience member was escorted out, against their will. This individual tried to out sing the actress onstage during one of the most popular songs known on earth: “I Will Always Love You,” sang originally by Dolly Parton, and then re-arrange by Dolly herself for the film (and Witney Houston) “The Bodyguard.” Another incident happened on Broadway during the production of “Death of a Salesman,” where the main actor, Wendell Pierce, had to break character and addressed the unruly behavior of an audience member in the front row, which also had to be escorted out. 

I admit that even though I don’t like jukebox musicals, I have attended a few due to particular circumstances: taking a family member, given tickets as a present, or for research purposes. In every show I have attended, there has always been one or two people (or more) who are just singing loud enough to keep me from enjoying the actors’ performances. This happened when I when to see Moulin Rouge The Musical, Tina The Musical, and Beautiful: The Carol King Musical

I get it. I know people love “this song or that song.” I get it because I have my favorite pop songs too, I also have my favorite musical theatre songs as well. When I hear them, I sing them. Loud and out of key 99% of the time. But if I’m in a theater, watching a musical and such favorite songs start, I don’t sing at all because I’m not there to sing. I’m there to watch others sing those songs. And like me, people paid money to hear those actors sing the songs. If I decide to sing, I’m not only being disrespectful to the actors on stage, but I’m also going to be the unwanted audience rude member that people will hiss at because they paid money to see the musical, not to see me. It’s that simple. Just because the cast in Les Miz sings “Do you hear the people sing?” doesn’t mean I need to start singing from my seat. 

Unfortunately, these unwanted audience participation situations are happening more often now than before. And at times, it’s not even one audience member but many. The time I attended the production of Tina The Musical, people all over the audience were singing along with the actors when the character sang “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” There is no doubt that such song is a favorite of mostly everyone. And the moment I heard the musical chords I smile because I knew it was coming. But my excitement die when many different audience members started to sing the song. It was truly annoying. And I wasn’t the only one because audience members were schussing at those who were singing.

At the end, I simply think it is common sense and human decency to not disturb and/or disrupt the theatrical experience everyone is trying to have. But many people feel that paying to see a show gives them the right to do what they want, becoming unwanted audience members instead of being respectful and communing with everyone attending. And knowing that more jukebox musicals are coming and that, in general, most people are showing their true entitlement colors, (I mean, even does anyone remember what Lauren Boebert did?), I’m afraid to say that the unwanted audience participation individuals will continued to exist. And that is an unfortunate reality. 

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