With the release of Jersey Boys this weekend, a film based on the popular musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it’s time to talk about proper etiquette when attending musicals, whether on a stage or a screen.
Appropriate sounds to make include laughing at the right moments and applauding at others. They do not include attempting to audition for the show you’re seeing.
Let me rephrase. If I paid $150 for a ticket to see Hedwig on Broadway, it’s to see Neil Patrick Harris deliver his Tony-award-winning performance of “Angry Inch,” not your personal rendition. And if I pay $15 for a ticket to see Jersey Boys this weekend, it is not because I’m really excited to find out how many of the words you remember to “Walk Like a Man”.
Most people seem to have figured out the basic theater etiquette. Turn off your phone. Don’t fiddle with loud candy wrappers or narrate the story for the person sitting next to you. We’ve all been near someone asking, “Is he DEAD?” at the silent moment of a film—most of us have figured out not to be that person. But I don’t remember the last time I saw a musical without having to listen to someone behind me singing along. Stop it.
I should have realized the problem when I saw Jersey Boys on tour several years ago. The women behind me insisted, “It’s like a concert!” when I objected that I had to strain to hear the stunning Joseph Leo Bwarie instead of them. I should have realized during Movin’ Out or All Shook Up or Mamma Mia!—anywhere along the rise of jukebox musicals. But I didn’t have that light-bulb-moment about why people who wouldn’t loudly talk through a show have no compunction about singing through it until I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway last year. One of the theater’s staff was apologizing after escorting out a group of women in front of us who were both loud talkers and loud singers. He explained that this is a common problem, as it is a bit of a hybrid show—part musical, but also part rock show. For example, during the performance we saw, when Stacee Jax first sang “Wanted Dead or Alive” and didn’t hear the audience echo back “waaaanted,” at the chorus, he yelled, “What the f*** was that?” and told us all to get on board. Nevertheless, it still is a Broadway musical, not a Bon Jovi concert, and a certain amount of decorum is expected with the enjoyment. (Because of this, Rock of Ages should probably be declared a show for advanced theater-goers.)
But that’s when I realized the root of the problem. Musical fans know all the words to “Defying Gravity,” even if we can’t come close to singing that final note (so the potential for a Wicked film terrifies me). We knew “Cell Block Tango” long before Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmied into those sequins. Unless it’s a completely new show, it can feel like a Bon Jovi concert, where you’ve known the words since 1987 and feel compelled to sing along. And if it’s a jukebox musical, doubly so, even if it is a brand-new show. But a musical theater performance is not a rock concert.
To sum up, places it’s OK to sing include:
- Your shower
- Loud concerts where I couldn’t hear you if I wanted to
- Midnight showings of Rocky Horror
- Your local Grease sing-along
- On a stage where you have been cast in the show (make sure you’re singing only your own parts)
- Karaoke bars after the show (where you’re welcome to drunkenly sing the part you actually wanted instead of the one you were cast in or are not qualified to perform under any circumstance)
Places it is not OK to sing include: sitting in your seat watching an artist perform in a musical, whether it’s on a stage or a screen. If you want to sing, get in your car and turn on the radio. If you want to see an artist, appreciate and respect their art.
Remember this when you see Jersey Boys this weekend, which—to go on a bit of a tangent—you should probably do only if you’ve seen the musical. I could go on about the shortcomings of the film adaptation, but Variety’s review does that pretty well. Instead I’ll just remind you to be considerate. And if someone near you tries to interfere with John Lloyd Young’s heartbreaking “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” it’s only reasonable to go a little Jersey on them.