“Ahoy up there!” says the guy in full pirate regalia who’s been lounging around in front of the first row of seats at “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.”
Before you know it, he’s up on the stage snapping selfies with the audience before being accosted by two “security guards” who inform him, none too gently, that no photography is allowed.
But, hey, people have been snapping pictures from the minute they entered the Palace Theatre, taking part in the preshow activities meant to get things going before, well, things actually get going.
And “SpongeBob” isn’t the only show that will make you regret coming late. At “Once on This Island,” the audience enters Circle in the Square to find many of the actors already on the sand-covered stage, seeming to be cleaning up after a storm. Someone’s cooking in one corner, a man fishes from the upper seats. At “Farinelli and the King,” the musicians wander about the stage, warming up on their period instruments, while a costumed actress roams about, chatting up the customers. Before the opening notes of “Once,” which opened last month at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, audience members can be found on stage, buying cocktails from the bar (the play is set in an Irish pub) and dancing.
But nowhere is the activity as zany as at “The Play That Goes Wrong,” where the hysteria starts well before the announced curtain time as cast members race through the aisles in search of a missing Springer Spaniel.
Basically it’s a “slow build” to get the audience to engage, says Jonathan Sayer, one of the comedy’s creators and original Broadway cast member. “The premise is that the show really isn’t ready to proceed,” he says. Not only is the dog, allegedly needed for Act 2, missing, but the door at the back of the set won’t stay closed and the mantelpiece keeps falling off.
Mark Evans, who plays the director in the show and is an active participant in the precurtain activity, notes that it’s important the “audience is not really sure if it’s part of the show or not.” The action should “never draw the full attention of the audience,” says Sayer. Once the play begins, all that interaction results in “nice payoffs . . . the audience feels part of the whole production.”
Connecting with the people who paid big bucks for a seat is, of course, pretty much the point. “It’s exciting to know you are entering another world,” says Jon Rua, who plays Patchy the Pirate in “SpongeBob.” It’s interesting to see how many people want to interact with Patchy, he says, adding that the preshow “allows the audience to connect with Patchy from an intimate place . . . connecting more to his journey.” When he lands in a bit of trouble later in the show, the audience is clearly rooting for him, because he believes, earlier they came “to realize he is just like them.”
Evans says that he is basically, welcoming people to the show. “It’s a very, very clever way of gradually immersing them into our world,” he adds. “That’s the joy of it. Immediately, they are part of the show.”
WELCOME TO THE ‘ISLAND’
For Lea Salonga, the intricate preshow at “Once on This Island” helps her establish her character, the goddess of love Erzulie. For the preshow, she appears dressed as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, there to help people recovering from the storm. “We’re kind of part of the island, but not really,” she says. Playing a nurse, she’s come to understand, represents something beyond a romantic love. “Love just pours out of her. I guess the embodiment in her human form is that of a nurse . . . the ones who are with you, holding your hand. It’s a very “nurturing spirit,” she says, “and that is what I’m representing out there.”
The whole thing can be a lot of fun, Salonga says, especially when the carefully scripted events go well. Director Michael Arden, she explains, gave every cast member a “cheat sheet” of tasks to perform before the opening number, though she admits circumstances don’t always allow her to get everything done. Things get interesting when a member of the musical theater community turns up in the audience: Salonga was delighted to involve Lin-Manuel Miranda in some shtick (her word) involving mosquito netting. However it goes, though, it brings the audience into the show. “It’s easy to get into the spirit of that opening number,” she says, “where everybody is joyful, and we talk about why we dance.”
And people seem generally tickled to be part of the action. At “Once on This Island,” Cassandra Curbio of the Bronx was having a fine time feeding grapes to the goat being led around by Tamyra Gray, who plays Papa Ge in the show. “It’s so exciting,” says Curbio. “It got me so immersed in the experience.”
And at “Once,” Jim Brogan of Huntington Station, dressed most appropriately in an Irish fisherman’s sweater and a tweed cap, was taking part in the preshow activities for the second time, having gone during the Broadway run. “It feels great,” he says, pointing out that he loves the story and saw the indie film the musical is based on “80 times.”
Evans says sometimes the audience really gets immersed in the preshow. He recalls one woman who turned the tables on him a bit, doing some clever improv during the search for the lost dog. “Oh, I just saw her,” she said. “She went into the ladies room.” Take that, Mr. Evans.
Still, he is thrilled with that kind of response. At talk-backs after the performance, he says people often ask him about his favorite part of the show. “More often than not I say the preshow, because it’s the thing that’s completely different every night. . . . I actually think this is the main reason the show works.”
READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP
The guy in seat B-1 was minding his own business, ready for the show to start. Next thing he knew, he was on stage. That’s how it goes at “The Play That Goes Wrong,” where they don’t kid around with the audience participation.
On a recent day it was Chadd Alexander, of Manhattan, who got the call. Ashley Bryant, who plays the stage manager in the show, beckoned him to follow. “At first I thought she was kidding,” said Alexander, making it clear that it was his first time on a Broadway stage. Obediently, he played along, ending up on the set trying to hold up the mantelpiece with one arm and keep a door shut with the other. When she handed Alexander a mop, the top of it went flying. She disappeared, and there he was, completely and pitifully alone.
The audience was in hysterics, as his body language sent out desperate messages for someone to save him. But honestly, by the time they took mercy and led him back to his seat, no one was laughing as hard as Alexander.
— Barbara Schuler