In an article in The New York Times this morning, theater writer Ben Brantley caught my attention.Writing about showstoppers, he divided them into two types: the piece (scene, line, song, etc.) so beautifully performed that the audience erupts into bravas and bravos and applause, and the glitch that destroys the illusion being created on the stage. In the latter category, he referred, for the most part, to big glitches like curtains falling on actors heads, scenes having to be restarted because an actor has gone up beyond recovery, and most of Spiderman.
But there is also the personal-sized showstopper. That's the thing you notice that may not affect anyone else in the audience, the mistake that tears you out of suspension of disbelief so fast that you get the bends. These can be tiny, but when we notice them, we are made more aware than we want to be that "it's only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sea". I am delighted to share a few of these little cuties with you.
In 1992, maidens' hearts went all a-flutter watching Daniel Day Lewis portray Nathaniel (Hawkeye) on film in The Last of the Mohicans. In the novel, by James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel was named Natty Bumppo. The screenplay didn't use that name, but it didn't bother me. Darlin' Dan is not really a Bumppo, is he? Nathaniel racing through a raging battle to his true love's rescue? Happy to believe it. But in an earlier scene, Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), traveling near Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains, peers into the woods and sees a mountain lion. That's plausible. Though rare, there are catamount sightings up north even today. But to see the great cat, she has to look through some leafy branches, and they are rhododendron branches, with rhododendron leaves.
I lived in the Adirondacks for twelve years, and never saw rhododendrons in the woods. The climate is probably too harsh. In that split-second of plant recognition, I was suddenly not in the Adirondack woods, but rather watching a movie, falling from being in the story onto the hard ground of merely watching the story. I really like Daniel Day Lewis, so I managed to get back on my horse of belief, and ride along for the rest of the movie. This was a tiny and personal stumbling block that I doubt many other people in the cinema that day noticed.
A similar thing happened at a performance of the recent revival of Guys and Dolls. I had two bouts of the bends at that show. The music was intolerably loud, and came from the wrong place. Though the actors were in front of me, singing on the stage, their voices were coming from above and to my right. Very loudly, too – HEY! did I mention that? – and many audience members spent the intermission complaining about the volume. But that was not the little personal thing. When Sky Masterson visits Sister Sarah Brown at the Save-a-Soul Mission, and surprises her by quoting scripture, they have a small disagreement about the chapter and verse provenance. In this production, the actress playing Sarah picked up a Bible from atop a battered lectern or an equally battered piano (can't remember), to look up the verse, and the Bible she picked up was brand-spankin' new, its gilt-edged pages shining in the lights. It was not scuffed, it did not flop in her hands. If you look at any TV evangelist, or, for that matter, any Christian who spends a lot of time reading the Word, you will virtually never see a shiny pristine Good Book in their hands. Their books are well-used, and truly battered, and if the prop Bible had to be run over by a car a couple of times to get the look right, I wish it had have been done. Because when I saw it, I was forced to remember I was watching a show, that the mission was a stage-set, and that the players were saying lines.
This, added to my already-existing discomfort with the sound, prevented that particular performance of one of the best musicals ever written from regaining my trust. I now was watching, not feeling, and certainly not believing.
There have been other examples – the movie sequence of the pretty collie herding sheep, which, given the dog's clearly visible hip problems it actually could never do, the passionate film cellist whose fingering and bowing would never result in what I am hearing, the Cole Porter music in the background of a period piece that is recorded in a way that didn't exist in that period, and sung in an inauthentic style. All these things distress me because of what I already know: canine anatomy (I trained dogs), cello technique (I played cello in my teens), how to sing Cole Porter (it is part of my life's work). I am certain that, based on their life experience and expertise, other folks notice other things.
As in theater, so too in church. Everybody there wants to believe. But sometimes we can't, and the reasons can seem very small, and usually have to do with some kind of personally-observed dissonance akin to the rhododendron leaves and Cole Porter's autotuning. Add enough small reasons together over time, though, and there are going to be disgruntled observers where once there were believers, and empty seats where once there were full houses, all for want of a little more attention to detail.